Priest Cases to Stay in State Court

By Eric Gorski
Denver Post [Colorado]
February 4, 2006

With a judge's decision Friday that clergy sexual-abuse lawsuits against the Denver Roman Catholic Archdiocese should be argued in state court, the legal battle is about to shift.

Among the developments expected in the coming months: attempts by lawyers for the alleged victims to obtain priests' personnel files and testimony from top church leaders.

Another key argument will center on whether the more than two dozen lawsuits filed in recent months deal with events so old that the statute of limitations has passed, lawyers say.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock on Friday turned away the archdiocese's attempts to move the lawsuits from state court, where they were filed, to federal court.

The ruling cannot be appealed, said Charles Goldberg, the archdiocese's general counsel. He declined comment on possible next steps.

The lawsuits take aim at the archdiocese for its handling of former priest Harold Robert White and the Rev. Leonard Abercrombie, who died in 1994. Both men have been accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse of altar boys and other young parishioners decades ago.

Babcock rejected the archdiocese's argument that a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling supported a venue change.

The high court's decision opened a narrow door for state claims dealing with "a contested and substantial federal issue" to be moved to federal court. The case involved whether the Internal Revenue Service followed federal guidelines in seizing and selling property at auction.

Goldberg argued the abuse lawsuits are laden with issues central to First Amendment clauses barring government establishment of religion and protecting free exercise of religion.

He said the alleged victims' arguments delve into "sacrosanct" areas, including church-parishioner and church-minister relationships and church governance. One set of lawsuits alleges that by calling priests "Father," the church gives clergy a way to exert undue influence over children, Goldberg said.

But Babcock said he could find no federal issues in the lawsuits' state law claims, which allege negligence, conspiracy and fraud, among other things.

"I am not persuaded that those provisions of the First Amendment find their way into the plaintiffs' claims in a way that creates federal jurisdiction," Babcock said.

Babcock told attorneys for both sides they were "forum shopping," looking for the venue where they had the best chance of winning. In recent rulings, state courts have been more favorable to the alleged victims' claims, while federal courts have been more favorable to the church.

In upholding a ruling against the Colorado Episcopal Diocese in the early 1990s, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the church's First Amendment arguments didn't hold up.

In throwing out a suit against a Catholic priest in 1998, a federal court judge found the First Amendment precludes court reviews of how religious groups hire and supervise clergy.

Lawyers for the alleged victims now move toward discovery, which usually involves motions seeking priests' personnel files and parish records, and depositions from the archdiocesan hierarchy, said Adam Horowitz, a Miami lawyer representing a group of plaintiffs.

Under state law, such civil suits against an institution generally must be filed within two years of the alleged abuse.

But Tom Roberts, a Denver lawyer representing another group of accusers, said he will argue his clients only found out about other allegations against the priests in media reports last year, and that the two-year clock started ticking then.


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