SJC Rejects Abuse Suit Reaching Back to '50s
By Wendy Davis
May 1, 2003
In a significant victory for church officials in the clergy sex abuse cases, the Supreme Judicial Court yesterday dismissed a suit by a woman who said she had been molested by a priest in the 1950s, ruling that she had waited too long to sue.
The unanimous decision may provide the Archdiocese of Boston with new ammunition in fighting many of the roughly 500 civil lawsuits filed by people who say they were sexually abused by priests decades ago.
"The court is making clear that standards for cases where people haven't filed for a long time are difficult to meet," said Suffolk University Law School professor Michael Avery.
Lawyers for some plaintiffs suing the archdiocese said the SJC decision should spur settlement talks.
Jeffrey Newman, whose law firm, Greenberg Traurig, represents approximately half of those suing Boston church officials, said the decision will require substantial additional discovery in every case. For that reason, he said, "the decision absolutely provides incentives for both sides to reach a negotiated settlement of these claims."
The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said the church will continue to attempt to settle the cases. "This isn't going to change what we've been doing all along, which is to try to reach a settlement in a fair and equitable and just way."
In the case decided yesterday, the alleged victim filed suit in 1998, 40 years after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a parish priest as a 16- and 17-year-old high school student preparing to become a nun.
She said she was molested by the Rev. Gerard E. Creighton and soon afterward began suffering from depression and other psychological problems. But she said she did not connect her difficulties to the abuse until 1995. Creighton has denied the allegations, according to his lawyer.
The state statute of limitations requires victims to bring suit within three years of the abuse or, if they are minors when molested, within three years of their 18th birthday.
In yesterday's case, the alleged victim, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, argued that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until 1995, when she recognized that her problems stemmed from the alleged abuse.
The Appeals Court had ruled in her favor, but the SJC reversed that decision, ruling that the case must be dismissed because a reasonable person would have made the connection before 1995.
Yesterday's decision does not address so-called "repressed memory" cases, since the case before the SJC concerned someone who always knew of the alleged abuse, but did not realize its full impact on her life.
In the decision, written by Justice Judith A. Cowin, the SJC rejected the notion that the alleged victim would not have made the connection between her alleged molestation and her emotional problems for decades.
"There is, in short, no evidence tending to support the plaintiff's contention that an ordinary, reasonable person in her position would fail to realize, for almost four decades, that her injuries were caused by the defendant," wrote the court.
Some victims' advocates were dismayed by yesterday's decision. "Many, many, many of us don't connect and can't connect our childhood pain with our current symptoms," said David Clohessy, who heads the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "When you are severely emotionally and physically and spiritually traumatized, you can't think like a normal person."
Some observers said the SJC, which accepted the case on an expedited basis, has signaled its intent to interpret the statute of limitations narrowly in other clergy sex abuse cases.
"Ancient cases, by and large, will be time-barred," said Creighton's lawyer, Marielise Kelly. "When a victim turns 18, the clock starts ticking."
Some lawyers said the decision may force the litigation of individual cases to determine whether the person suing should reasonably have made the connection between alleged abuse and their subsequent personal difficulties sooner.
"Each and every one of these cases is going to have factual issues that will need to be teased out," said Carmen Durso, who represents approximately 40 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. Only one of Durso's clients filed suit within the statute of limitations.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 108 alleged victims suing the church, almost all of whom filed suit after the three-year statute of limitations had expired, said, "This case does not slam the door shut on all victims."
Greenberg Traurig said in a statement that most of the firm's clients will not be affected by yesterday's ruling because they were between the ages of 7 and 10 when allegedly abused. The SJC noted in its decision that the alleged victim was 16 and 17 when allegedly molested and it would "hardly have been a distant memory when the plaintiff reached her 18th birthday."
Also, the law firm said that many of its clients were told by priests that the allegedly abusive behavior was normal - a factor that might lead a jury to believe a reasonable person would not have connected abuse to later psychological difficulties. Some had also suppressed memories of the alleged abuse.
Some lawyers said another factor clouding the impact of yesterday's decision is a 2001 SJC ruling that found that a lawsuit in a sex abuse case brought nearly 30 years after the fact was not barred by the statute of limitations.
In that case, James E. Ross said that he was 15 when Boston disc jockey John Garabedian (no relation to attorney Garabedian) began abusing him, but that he did not realize the psychological harm until entering therapy in 1996.
Yesterday, the SJC said the Ross decision represented the "outer boundaries" of the exception to the statute of limitations.
Legislation is currently pending to extend the statute of limitations in both civil and criminal sex abuse cases in Massachusetts. In the past, the SJC has ruled that a statute of limitations that has expired cannot be revived retroactively.
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