Abuse Cases Turn on Deadlines

By Glenn May
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review [Pittsburgh PA]
July 7, 2004

An Allegheny County judge expressed skepticism Tuesday with legal arguments that sexual misconduct lawsuits filed against the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh missed legal deadlines.

Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. did not rule on diocesan lawyer Joseph Selep's request to dismiss the lawsuits filed by two dozen men and women who claimed the diocese and its bishops failed to stop sexual misconduct. Nor did Wettick indicate when he might rule on the pretrial motions.

Describing the recent discoveries about clergy abuse as "extraordinary revelations," Wettick suggested parents could not have been expected to be skeptical in the past about the church's dedication to protecting children from sexual predators.

"I would never expect the church to subject my son to someone who has been involved in previous activities," Wettick said.

Attorneys Alan Perer and Richard Serbin, who represent the plaintiffs, agreed the state's two-year limit for filing civil lawsuits has passed since most of the incidents. But the lawyers argued the clock should not begin to run until 2002, when clergy sex abuse became a national scandal.

The lawyers contend their clients did not know about church coverups until the scandal became public.

The pretrial hearing came as the Archdiocese of Portland announced it will seek bankruptcy protection because of the steep costs of clergy abuse cases, an unprecedented step that will open the Oregon archdiocese to new levels of court scrutiny.

No other American diocese has filed for bankruptcy, although Boston threatened to do so. The Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., has said it will consider bankruptcy before an abuse case comes to trial there in September.

In the cases before Wettick, the lawsuits share the same premise that the church hierarchy can be sued even if the priests cannot. The lawyers agreed to use one case to test that legal theory.

It involves an unidentified 26 year-old man who claims he was abused in 1989 by the Rev. John Wellinger at Holy Spirit parish in West Mifflin.

Selep argued the man had a legal duty to find out at the time if church leaders were involved in covering up the incident before deciding not to file a lawsuit. Selep said the man could have talked to other parishioners or church leaders.

Wettick noted the man stated he reported the abuse to church officials and was falsely told Wellinger would be removed.

"Why would he file a lawsuit if that's what the response was?" Wettick asked.

Selep declined to comment after the hearing.

"I was very pleased with the questions (Wettick) was asking or raising," Perer said later.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorney William Pietragallo II defended his client, the retired Rev. George Wilt, who served at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon for 25 years. He retired as pastor in 2003.

An unidentified woman claims Wilt sexually molested her in 1961 during counseling.

Pietragallo said Wilt did not begin serving at St. Bernard until 1968.

Glenn May can be reached at or 412-391-8650.