Ploy May Pay off for Priest Victims
Two Attorneys Claim Fraud Law May Pave Way for Compensation

By Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News [Detroit MI]
March 23, 2004

Michigan’s statute of limitations has left no recourse for most victims of sexually abusive Catholic priests, but two local attorneys believe they have found a legal strategy that could offer justice.

The legal arguments are rooted in a consumer protection law typically used in lawsuits against businesses with shady practices.

Attorneys Elmer Roller of Bloomfield Hills and David Steinberg of Bingham Farms say the strategy could open floodgates of lawsuits here and across the country. Legal experts, however, are split on whether the maneuver will pass muster.

The law, known as fraudulent concealment, is the primary argument in a $10 million suit filed on behalf of the father and late mother of an alleged victim of the Rev. Alfred Miller.

Miller served at St. Francis Cabrini school and parish in Allen Park during the 1970s, and allegedly molested the victim while he attended Cabrini High School. Additionally, Archdiocese of Detroit bishops were aware Miller allegedly sexually abused young boys at Erie Mason High School while he was a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Erie before he was moved to Cabrini, according to the lawsuit.

The legal theory is that the church was aware of Miller’s sexually abusive past and represented something contrary in allowing him to continue to serve in the church, thereby allowing the abuse to continue and causing damage to the victim. The victim did not disclose to his parents until last summer that he was abused, which fits into the two-year time frame when a party can file a suit under this law.

Archdiocese of Detroit officials said they acted appropriately last July when they placed Miller, then 64 and pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Temperance, on administrative leave and restricted his ministry after receiving a credible allegation of sexual misconduct. Diocesan spokesman Ned McGrath declined to comment on pending litigation.

Whether the legal strategy will prevail is debatable.

“This is a creative effort to make a case that is stale and make it fresh, and my expectation is that it will have a chance of a snowball in hell of making it work,” said Professor Robert Blakey of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana.

But Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, said the tactic has merit because the church compounded the problem with its secrecy and should be held liable.

“By keeping it secret, they let the abuse perpetuate itself,” said Hamilton, who specializes in religious institutions that break the law. “It’s the secrecy that is at the heart of the scope of the scandal.”

Victims in Michigan, like many other states, have been unable to seek criminal or civil justice because of the statute of limitations, which ends 10 years after the abuse, or when a victim reaches 21, whichever is later. Most of the incidents of priests sexually abusing minors occurred several decades ago, so the legal time frame has expired.

There has been a legislative attempt in Michigan to remove statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims who are minors, but so far state Sen. Mike Goschka, R-Brant, has not been able to get a hearing on the bill that he sponsored in September 2003.

Attorneys have been trying to find a legal way to make the church accountable.

“The church is positioned solely for the preservation of the church irrespective of the harm it has done,” said Roller, one of the two attorneys working on the case and a practicing Catholic. “The church is positioned so it is a big business, and big business does not redress the harms and evils it has done to its parishioners.

“These barriers are going to start to fall.”

You can reach Kim Kozlowski at (313) 222-2024


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