Archdiocese Asks Judge to Throw out Abuse Case
12 Plaintiffs Filed Class-Action Suit Last Month

By Michael Hinkelman
Philadelphia Daily News
July 19, 2006

[See also a Philadelphia Daily News editorial on the suit; see also the Philadelphia grand jury report.]

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has asked a federal judge to throw out a class-action lawsuit filed last month by 12 people who allege that the church's coverup of abuse by Catholic priests violated federal racketeering and conspiracy laws.

The plaintiffs, who said they had been abused by various priests from 1956 to 1985, also claim their civil rights were violated. They're seeking unspecified damages.

The lawsuit names as defendants the archdiocese, Cardinals Justin Rigali and Anthony Bevilacqua, and the estate of Cardinal John Krol, contending they engaged in a "massive conspiracy to cover up and effectively perpetuate" the abuse.

But the archdiocese's response, filed late Monday, said the lawsuit "cannot withstand even simple scrutiny," and cites 65 federal and state court rulings in support of its motion to dismiss.

For example, the plaintiffs said the conspiracy and racketeering activity dated from 1940, but the archdiocese noted that Congress didn't enact the racketeering statute - more commonly known as RICO - until 1970.

Until now, victims of alleged abuse by priests have been mostly unsuccessful in Pennsylvania courts because the allegations are too old.

A Philadelphia grand-jury report last year on sex abuse in the church blasted the archdiocese and its former leaders, accusing them of hiding and condoning the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

The report identified more than 60 priests who abused hundreds of children over several decades.

However, no indictments resulted; the grand jury bemoaned its inability to file criminal charges and urged changes in state law to loosen the statute of limitations and allow such cases to move forward.

The archdiocese said in its court filing that the plaintiffs, six of whom have filed lawsuits in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, were simply seeking to do an "end-run" around the state statute of limitations.

The archdiocese also argued that federal courts "have made clear" that civil RICO claims may not be pursued to recover personal-injury damages. According to their lawsuit, the plaintiffs seek to be compensated for "severe mental and physical injuries."

Victim-rights advocate and law professor Marci Hamilton has said civil RICO "requires a showing of harm to property, as opposed to person," and therefore is unavailable in claims against institutions arising from child abuse.

Further, the archdiocese argued that even if the plaintiffs could make a viable racketeering claim, they waited too long to assert it.

A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision adopted a four-year statute of limitations on RICO claims, and the time period begins "when the plaintiffs knew or should have known of the injury," the decision said.

The archdiocese also asked a federal judge to throw out claims that the archdiocese, Rigali, Bevilacqua and Krol's estate conspired to deprive the plaintiffs of their civil rights.

The archdiocese noted in court papers that the plaintiffs did not allege a conspiracy based on racial or class discrimination, as the law requires.

Contact Michael Hinkelman at 215-854-2656 or


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