Abuse Suits Allowed against Joliet Diocese
Appeals Court Sends Back 5 Men's Cases

By Hal Dardick
Chicago Tribune [Joliet IL]
January 19, 2006

A state appeals court opinion released this week could allow five men to pursue sexual abuse lawsuits against two former priests from the Catholic Diocese of Joliet, even though the alleged abuse took place more than two decades ago.

The 3rd District Appellate Court ruled 2-1 to overturn a Will County trial court judge's 2004 ruling that the statute of limitations on bringing sexual abuse claims had expired.

The opinion is binding on trial court judges in the 3rd District, which includes Will and Peoria Counties. Cases of alleged sexual abuse by priests were filed recently in Peoria and are expected to turn, in part, on the statute-of-limitations question, attorneys said.

Judges in other jurisdictions are not bound by the Appellate Court's decision, but they "will lean toward" following the 3rd District opinion, said attorney Aldo Botti, who represents former priests named in the Will and Peoria County suits.

Botti said he is likely to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court on behalf of former priest Michael Gibbney. James Fonck accused Gibbney of abusing him in the late 1970s at Mary Queen of Heaven Parish in Elmhurst.

"It should be clarified," Botti said. "I think it's an issue that should be addressed, and hopefully the Supreme Court will take it."

Thomas Kerber, spokesman for the Joliet diocese, noted the decision was not unanimous and said, "Diocesan legal counsel is considering the possibility of an appeal in the near future to the Illinois Supreme Court."

The suits named both the former priests and Bishop Joseph Imesch--in his capacity as trustee for the Diocese of Joliet Trust--as defendants.

The Appellate Court, in an opinion written by Justice Mary McDade, ruled the clock on the 2-year statute of limitations does not start ticking until accusers are both aware they were abused and realize the psychological harm caused by the abuse.

In his dissent, Justice Daniel Schmidt said it was "unreasonable" to believe the men would not realize the harm caused by the alleged abuse until they were in their 30s.

In 2004, Will County Circuit Judge James Garrison said the men's claims were not believable when he dismissed the suit before hearing any evidence.

But the Appellate Court said that whether the claims are believable must be decided by a judge or jury after considering evidence, testimony and arguments.

"We're grateful that a judge will let a jury determine this case and grateful for the victims' courage and persistence," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

In their suit, the five men--who leveled allegations against now-inactive priests who once served in Elmhurst and Joliet parishes--claimed they were not aware their psychological difficulties were caused by the alleged abuse until 2002. That's when they were exposed to heavy media coverage of a sex-abuse scandal and cover-up in the Boston diocese.

In addition to Fonck's allegations against Gibbney, four other men--Brian Softcheck and three men identified only as John Doe 1, 2 and 3--accused former priest Lawrence Mullins of abusing them when they were students and altar boys at St. Raymond's Cathedral in Joliet.

They were between 9 and 13 years old at the time, said Michael Bolos, one of their attorneys. When they filed their complaints, they were between 33 and 37 years old.

McDade wrote that because the men alleged they "were repeatedly assured that sex between a priest and a child is not wrongful but is, indeed, beneficial to the child's growth," it is not unreasonable they did not earlier recognize the psychological harm.

"The argument also fails to recognize the potentially long-term effects of childhood psychological trauma," she added.

All three agreed a 2003 law that extended the statute of limitations in sex abuse cases cannot be retroactively applied.

They also agreed the suits should not be dismissed because of 1st Amendment claims invoked by the diocese. It alleged the suits asked the court to judge church doctrine because the suits state that the former priests told the five men that their instructions "were perfect and infallible and superior to imperfect human laws."

But the opinion stated a judge or jury would determine whether the men were indeed told that, not pass judgment on church doctrine.

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