N.Y. High Court: Missed Deadlines Halt Claims of Clergy Abuse
Post-Incident Conduct Held Not to Foreclose Timely Action
By John Caher
Law.com [New York]
February 23, 2006
New York's Court of Appeals Tuesday closed the door to time-barred clergy abuse claims in a ruling that shifts back to the state Legislature the question of whether individuals who were molested years or decades ago should have their day in court.
In two cases, one decided 6-0 and the other 5-1, the court found no basis to equitably toll the statute of limitations for victims of sexually exploitive clergy.
To do so, especially where the victim was aware of the offense when it occurred and where there is no indication the perpetrator prevented the victim from coming forward earlier, would eviscerate the statute of limitations, the court said in Zumpano v. Quinn, 1, and Estate of Boyle v. Smith, 2.
"[I]f the doctrine of equitable estoppel were to be applied as broadly as plaintiffs suggest, the statute of limitations would rarely be available as a defense," Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick wrote for the court. "Plaintiff's proposed rule would 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 court made clear that a defendant who somehow prevents the victim from coming forward in a timely manner cannot then hide behind the statute of limitations. But it said that was not the case in either Zumpano or Boyle.
"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," Ciparick wrote.
The court held that defendants' subsequent concealment of their own actions and of the priests' conduct, post-wrong-doing, "did not appear in any way to alter plaintiffs' early awareness of the essential facts and circumstances underlying their causes of action or their ability to timely bring their claims."
Further, the court left open -- for the second time in a year -- the question of whether a fiduciary relationship exists between a member of the clergy and a congregant.
In Wende C. v. United Methodist Church, 4 NY3d 293, 299 , the court deemed it unnecessary to answer that question. Tuesday, it found it equally unnecessary.
"Even if the Court were to assume that a fiduciary relationship existed between the parties during plaintiffs' infancy and that the diocesan defendants had a legal duty to disclose any knowledge of prior incidents of sexual abuse and breached that duty, plaintiffs still failed to demonstrate how that breach prevented them from bringing a timely action," the court said.
Also, in an ancillary matter Tuesday, the court declined to review a divided Appellate Division, 3rd Department, ruling that refused for statute of limitations purposes to recognize a doctrine of religious duress.
Last April, the 3rd Department followed the lead of the 2nd and 4th departments and refused to toll the statute of limitations in cases where the plaintiffs claimed that psychological and moral pressure exerted by the Roman Catholic Church and its traditions effectively prevented plaintiffs from coming forward until the clergy abuse scandal became common knowledge (John Doe v. Holy See, Mo. No. 750).
Taken together, the decisions rendered Tuesday in Zumpano and Boyle, and the leave denial in Doe v. Holy See, eliminate all but one avenue of relief for clergy abuse victims: the New York state Legislature. In fact, the court said as much in the second sentence of its 26-page opinion.
"Regrettably ... these claims are time-barred, and absent relief from the Legislature will remain unredressed," Ciparick wrote. She later added in a footnote that Connecticut and California have both enacted laws permitting clergy abuse victims to pursue late claims.
Zumpano and Boyle arose from the Syracuse and Brooklyn dioceses, respectively.
In Zumpano, plaintiff John Zumpano alleged the Reverend James Quinn abused him between 1963 and 1970, when he was a Catholic school student in Utica. Zumpano sued the priest and Diocese of Syracuse in 2003. He acknowledged that the statute of limitations had expired in 1976 but sought equitable estoppel of the time bar on the grounds that the abuse had rendered him mentally and emotionally incapable of coming forward.
Supreme Court dismissed the action in a ruling upheld by the 4th Department. The appeals panel noted that there was no allegation that Reverend Quinn or the diocese had overtly committed any acts against Zumpano since 1970. A recent investigation by the diocese failed to substantiate the allegations of abuse.
Boyle involved 42 plaintiffs who claimed they were abused by 13 Diocese of Brooklyn priests between 1960 and 1985, when all of the plaintiffs were minors.
They argued the diocese should be equitably estopped from asserting such a statute of limitations defense because it perpetuated the abuse by refusing to report allegations to civil authorities, shifted known pedophiles to other parishes without warning, paid off complainants in return for silence and took other actions to conceal its misconduct and complicity.
DISSENT BACKS REPLEADING
Supreme Court dismissed and the Appellate Division, 2nd Department, affirmed. Tuesday, the Court of Appeals affirmed in a 5-1 opinion.
Judge George Bundy Smith dissented in part and would have permitted the plaintiffs to re-plead and perhaps "make out a better case" of their efforts to comply with due diligence, and the diocese's effort to frustrate their attempts.
"Defendants allegedly retained a number of unscrupulous priests for a long period of time," Smith wrote. "The facts and circumstances alleged, if true, demonstrate affirmative wrongdoing" that could toll the statute of limitations. "While it is insufficient for the plaintiffs to make only general allegations of deception and misrepresentation, plaintiffs have asserted sufficient facts to permit another pleading that may permit this case to proceed."
Michael G. Dowd of Manhattan appeared for the Boyle plaintiffs. Joseph M. Farrell of Conway, Farrell, Curtin & Kelly in Manhattan represented the Brooklyn diocese defendants.
Mark Shulte of Syracuse represented the Zumpano defendants. Frank Policello of Utica argued for plaintiffs in Zumpano, assisted by Paul DerOhannesian II of Albany.
Dennis Poust, associate director of the New York State Catholic Conference, said the rulings confirm that neither the Zumpano nor Boyle plaintiffs could show that the church hierarchy obstructed their claims.
"We are obviously pleased with the decision," Poust said. "The Court recognized that the statute of limitations is in place as a matter of legislative intent to protect defendants from stale claims."
But John A. Aretakis, an attorney in Manhattan and Albany and outspoken advocate for clergy abuse victims, said he will "continue to humiliate and embarrass the church" by bringing incidents to public light even if he cannot bring them to court.
Aretakis, who had predicted the result in this case, said there is still a legal avenue of redress for victims who were transported over state lines. He also has not given up hope that the state Legislature will toll the statute of limitations for clergy sexual abuse victims. Such legislation is pending in both houses.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.