Time a Factor in Priest Abuse Case

By Jack Elliott Jr.
The Associated Press, carried in The Clarion-Ledger [Mississippi]
May 9, 2005

The Mississippi Supreme Court says a statute-of-limitations problem may exist for three brothers suing the Catholic Diocese of Jackson over allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

The issue, however, wasn't addressed in the court's recent decision that the First Amendment does not prohibit lawsuits against the diocese over abuse claims.

The brothers filed a $48 million lawsuit in Hinds County Circuit Court in 2002. They claimed they were abused by a priest more than 30 years ago. The trial had been on hold while the Supreme Court considered the diocese's motion for dismissal.

The diocese, which is spread over 65 counties and serves 51,347 registered Catholics, said in a statement issued by attorney Stephen J. Carmody that the ruling didn't address the merits or validity of the claims by Kenneth, Thomas and Francis Morrison. The men say they were abused by the Rev. George Broussard when they were children in the 1970s.

Carmody said only constitutional issues were discussed by the Supreme Court.

However, the diocese said it expects to win dismissal of Morrisons' lawsuit on the statute of limitations issue.

Chief Justice Jim Smith, in a dissenting opinion, said the Morrisons' claims were based on alleged abuse from 1970 to 1974.

"When their father, Dr. Morrison, learned of the abuse in 1973, he promptly confronted Broussard and reported the abuse to the vicar general of the diocese as well as to the diocese officials," Smith wrote. "Dr. Morrison had actual notice in 1973 of the abuse, so therefore, their claims are barred by the statute of limitations."

The diocese said it expected a judge to agree with Smith's assessment.

John F. Hawkins, an attorney for the Morrisons, said the statute of limitations issue will be one of several pending in Hinds County Circuit Court when the case resumes.

"We are confident that as we move through to discovery to trial, the issue of statute of limitations will be addressed by the court," Hawkins said Friday. "We believe our clients will have their day in court."

Mississippi law in the 1970s and 1980s required that sex abuse of a child be prosecuted within two years of the abuse. Legislators increased that time limit to seven years in a 1990 amendment.

In 1993, legislators amended the law to its present form, which says prosecution of child sex abusers must commence on or before the victim's 21st birthday.

The change increased the time limit for prosecutions in some cases but decreased it in others, depending on how old the child was when the abuse took place.

Challenges to the abuse allegations under the statute of limitations have had mixed results in Hinds County Circuit Court.

In 2003, Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, in dismissing one lawsuit against the Jackson diocese, said the plaintiffs had six years from their 21st birthday to file their lawsuit.

DeLaughter said the statute of limitations had expired in the lawsuit filed by Mark Belenchia and his wife, Donna, and a person identified only as John Doe 1 against St. Mary Catholic Church/School and the diocese over allegations of abuse in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Belenchia's 21st birthday was Aug. 1, 1976, meaning a case should have been filed no later than Aug. 1, 1982, according to DeLaughter's ruling.

In 2004, DeLaughter dismissed two more lawsuits on grounds the two plaintiffs gave up their rights to seek an exception to the statute of limitations when they entered into a settlement with the Diocese in 1994. Details of the 1994 settlement weren't disclosed.

The plaintiffs in that case filed a lawsuit in 2002 claiming they were sexually abused by a priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Shelby and at St. Therese Catholic Church in Jackson between 1974 and 1984.

The plaintiffs were between the ages of about 9 to 14 when the alleged abuse occurred. Based on the statute of limitations, their cases should have been filed by the mid-1990s, diocese attorneys said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs had argued the case is exempt from the statute of limitations because two of the plaintiffs didn't realize they had been sexually abused until counseling in 2002.

In February, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to review what the diocese believed were conflicting judicial rulings on sex abuse cases and a judge's refusal to dismiss a lawsuit brought by two people. The court did not issue a written decision on its reasons.