Panel Could Aid Priest Abuse Suits
If It Cites Systematic Church Cover-up

By Ron Goldwyn
Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
Downloaded May 5, 2003

A year-long grand jury investigating alleged sexual abuse by priests in Philadelphia could hold the key to future suits by abuse victims - litigation that has been rare, and rarely successful.

A $300 million suit filed in Long Island - which includes a Philadelphia abuse victims' group leader among 23 plaintiffs - cites a grand jury report as part of new legal tactics on old allegations.

The approach could serve as a model in any Philadelphia litigation, such as the suit filed last week by a former South Philadelphian who alleges he was abused by a priest in 1982 and 1983.

The Long Island suit, against the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., includes a scathing Suffolk County grand jury report literally as Exhibit A. The report found a massive and carefully planned church coverup to keep priest abuse under wraps until legal deadlines had passed.

"That's called fraudulent concealment. You should not be able to benefit from the statute of limitations by concealing the fact you did wrong," said Manhattan lawyer Michael Dowd, who filed the suit two weeks ago. "We're trying to break ground."

One of Dowd's clients is John Salveson, director of the Philadelphia chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Salveson, 47, of Bryn Mawr, grew up on Long Island, where he was allegedly abused from age 13 by a priest who died last spring.

"These guys at the [Rockville] diocese had a core strategy of lying and misleading victims so they wouldn't bring suit and the statute of limitations would run [out]," he said.

Salveson, who moved to this area as an adult, said, "I have no reason to believe Philadelphia is any better or any worse than any other diocese."

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua has been quick to weed out priests as allegations surface - he wrote to a diocese in Peru seeking the immediate suspension of the Rev. Michael Donofrio, named in last week's suit.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Catherine Rossi said Friday that the Diocese of Abancay, at the cardinal's request, "has released Father Donofrio from his ministry pending an investigation."

Donofrio was cited in a suit by Louis Aquilino, 33, of Turnersville, N.J., for abusing him in 1982 and 1983 at St. Thomas Aquinas church, in South Philadelphia.

But Bevilacqua has declined to make public any old cases or allegations.

So Salveson - who wouldn't be part of any local suits but knows many abuse survivors - anxiously awaits the grand jury findings.

"I know people who have talked to [the grand jury]. They've been incredibly secretive about it, which I suppose is the way it's supposed to be. The only impression I have is they are very serious," Salveson said.

The Philadelphia grand jury, which has reportedly extended its investigation another six months, hasn't indicated what it may do.

District Attorney Lynne Abraham, on April 24, 2002, announced the grand jury would probe all abuse complaints and files involving the archdiocese for possible criminality - no matter how long ago.

The archdiocese says it reported to law enforcement officials all timely cases. But it initially withheld files on many "credible" abuse allegations where it said criminal and civil time limits had expired or abusers had died.

Abraham said that was a legal decision for her and other prosecutors to make.

"The archdiocese is respectful of the legal process that is taking place and the secrecy of grand jury proceedings," said Rossi. "The law dictates that we are not at liberty to discuss any aspect of the grand jury's activities."

There's also been no direct comment on last week's complaint, which names Donofrio, the archdiocese and St. Thomas Aquinas as defendants.

The suit charges that Aquilino had blocked out any recollection of abuse until March 2002. It said his memory was jolted while watching "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," which Donofrio had taken him to see.

The complaint, which expands on a summons filed a year ago, doesn't mention the grand jury.

But it does allege, without citing specifics or naming other priests or victims, a pattern of coverup and "fraudulent concealment" by the archdiocese, echoing the Long Island situation.

The abuse, it said, was "part of a deliberate systemwide attempt to cover up, suppress and distort what the archdiocese knew [continuously up to the present] about sexual abuse by priests, with... the effective concealment of the knowledge" from Aquilino and the public. Aquilino's lawyer, George Vinci, couldn't be reached for comment.

The suit, which cites no specific damages sought, is the first in Philadelphia against the archdiocese since the national abuse scandal exploded in Boston about 15 months ago. It appears to be the first such suit filed here in a decade.

"Generally speaking, we do not discuss claims or litigations of this kind," said the Archdiocese's Rossi.

She did say the allegations are the first against Donofrio. He volunteered for missionary work among homeless children and poor families in the Peruvian mountains in the early 1990s.

Legal experts say courts here have been unmoved by assertions of "recovered memory" and have strictly applied the statute of limitations. In Aquilino's case that would have expired a decade ago, five years after his 23rd birthday.

Since most allegations trace to the 1970s and 1980s, alleged perpetrators and the archdiocese have been largely immune from prosecution or civil suits.

The Survivors First data base tracking of national cases indicates no pending suits against the archdiocese. The archdiocese has said it has paid out about $200,000 to settle abuse claims.

The Long Island suit, which includes Salveson, challenges New York's similar limits.

"As more evidence comes out how the church handled these cases, many of these dioceses willfully had the statute of limitations very much on their minds and did everything to push victims away," Salveson said.

Pennsylvania's statute was lengthened last fall to 12 years - which would give those molested as children the right to bring charges or file suits up to age 30. But it's not retroactive.

Could the Philadelphia grand jury contain findings that would buff up the Aquilino suit and any others that follow?

"That's certainly possible," said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University, in Brooklyn, and an ex-Bucks County resident nationally known as an expert on religious legal issues and clergy abuse. "I'm very interested to see what this grand jury will come out with."

The key question is, she said, "is there going to be evidence you can show of a concerted effort of coverup by the church itself?"

In Pennsylvania, she said, the courts have not been hospitable to extending or waiving the statute, "one of the reasons not that many law suits" have been filed or won in the state.

But the national landscape is changing. Clergy abuse suits are "a new growth field," she said, and lawyers are exploring new legal theories to buttress cases.

Hamilton said some survivors' lawyers now advance the idea that victims "had no reason to understand they were going to have emotional difficulty... and the harm they would suffer" until years later.

One factor that makes Philadelphia's investigation "a special case," she said, is Bevilacqua's training as a lawyer.

"He's very smart. I would imagine things were handled in more lawyerly fashion than other jurisdictions. He may have been more careful with evidence, storage of documents, retention of documents," she said.

She noted that in some jurisdictions church officials have opened files to prosecutors and the media. In others, including Boston, where the scope of the scandal first became apparent, judges have forced disclosure.


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