Court Rejects Abuse Claims Citing Church

By Andy Newman
The New York Times
February 22, 2006

New York's highest court refused yesterday to waive the statute of limitations and allow dozens of old sexual abuse claims against the Roman Catholic Church to go to trial.

The State Court of Appeals ruled that 42 plaintiffs, who say they were abused by priests in the Brooklyn Diocese in the 1960's, 70's and 80's, had not shown specific actions by church officials that prevented them from filing suit sooner. New York's statute of limitations requires that negligence suits against institutions be filed within three years of the offense or before a plaintiff turns 21, whichever occurs later.

The 5-to-1 decision is likely to block the revival of dozens of other cases against the church in New York that have been dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds. In a related unanimous decision, the court rejected a claim by a man that years of abuse by a priest in the Syracuse Diocese had made him insane and that the insanity had prevented him from filing suit within the statute of limitations.

The Brooklyn plaintiffs had argued that church leaders intentionally thwarted lawsuits by shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish, falsely assuring victims that the priests had been removed from the ministry and paying off some families to keep them quiet. To allow the officials to then claim immunity under the statute of limitations would be to reward them for their deception, the plaintiffs said.

But the court said that while such conduct "might be morally questionable in any defendant, let alone a religious institution," it was not grounds for waiving the statute.

"A wrongdoer is not legally obliged to make a public confession, or to alert people who may have claims against it, to get the benefit of a statute of limitations," said Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, who wrote the decision.

The plaintiffs knew they had been abused and knew that the priests worked for the diocese, so there was nothing to stop them from suing earlier, the court ruled. Granting the plaintiffs' broad request, the court said, would gut the statute of limitations and "revive any lapsed claim where the defendant inflicted some type of injury upon a knowing plaintiff but failed to come forward with further information about his or her wrongdoing."

The dissenting judge, George Bundy Smith, agreed that the plaintiffs had failed to make their case, but wrote that they deserved a chance to reargue it.

The court also said that it was up to the State Legislature to revise and loosen New York's statute of limitations, one of the country's strictest.

Referring to "injuries caused by these deplorable acts" by priests, the court said, "Regrettably, many of these claims are time-barred, and absent relief from the Legislature will remain unredressed." The court cited measures in Connecticut and California that have allowed old lawsuits to move forward.

The ruling's reference to legislative action gave some consolation to advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse. "I think it puts an incredible amount of pressure on the State Legislature to actually do something," said Mark Furnish, who is the New York director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, and the legal counsel to Senator Thomas K. Duane.

A bill passed by the Assembly last year and again last month would allow a one-year window for old claims to be brought to court and would give plaintiffs until age 28 to file suit.

A spokesman for the bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey, a Queens Democrat, said the bill was being amended to make it more palatable to the Republican-controlled Senate. Senator Stephen M. Saland, a Republican from Poughkeepsie, plans to introduce a Senate version of the bill.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Michael G. Dowd, said he was disappointed by the decision. He added, "I think that effectively the court said that in circumstances where you have a gross wrongdoing and injustice done to victims of child sexual abuse, that New York State and its courts will provide no remedy."

The spokesman for the Brooklyn Diocese, Frank DeRosa, welcomed the decision and said that while the state's bishops continue to oppose any retroactive extension of the statute of limitations, they are "open to discussing any proposed changes" that would take effect in the future.


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