Abuse Suit Dismissed
Archdiocese Accused of Conspiracy

By Michael Hinkelman
Philadelphia Daily News [Philadelphia PA]
November 21, 2006

A federal judge yesterday threw out a sexual abuse-related class-action lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and its current and former leaders.

A dozen individuals filed the suit in June alleging that archdiocesan officials violated civil racketeering, or RICO, statutes and conspiracy laws when they allegedly covered up sexual abuse of minors by priests.

U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis said the plaintiffs should seek another route for redress.

"This court cannot force a moral wrong into a legal mold where it clearly does not fit. The remedy lies with Congress, not the courts," Davis wrote in his 29-page decision.

C. Clark Hodgson, Jr., an attorney for the archdiocese, was unavailable for comment.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said the archdiocese typically doesn't comment on litigation.

Stewart J. Eisenberg, the plaintiffs' attorney, said he was disappointed and planned an appeal.

"I think that we had a legal basis for claims that were valid, but the court disagreed," Eisenberg said.

Davis said the lawsuit simply didn't pass legal muster.

The complaint alleged that the defendants ignored abuses, encouraged priests suspected of abusing children to continue working in parishes, transferred priests accused of abuse to hide them, and told people who complained about priests not to go to civil authorities.

The plaintiffs are all adults but were children at the time they were allegedly abused.

They sought unspecified damages on claims for emotional distress, loss of earnings, decreased earnings and out-of-pocket expenses for medical and psychological treatment.

Davis said their claims were "insufficient" to support a civil RICO action.

The civil RICO law specifically requires injury to business or property, but Davis said the complaint "failed to adequately allege" an injury to business or property.

And, even if plaintiffs had met that threshold, he wrote, they would have to show that their injuries were "proximately caused" by the alleged racketeering activity, and they failed to make that case, too.

For instance, Davis noted that the plaintiffs' own complaint said their emotional distress and costs of medical and psychological treatment were alleged to have resulted from acts of sexual abuse by priests and not as a result of a cover-up by church leaders.

Davis also chided plaintiffs for naming Cardinal Justin Rigali as a defendant in the case.

Davis noted that nothing in the complaint or a Philadelphia grand-jury report released in September 2005 on sex abuse of minors by Catholic clergy alleged any wrongdoing by Rigali.

The complaint alleged that the archdiocese and its top leaders had violated civil RICO statutes until at least 2002, but Rigali wasn't installed as archbishop here until Oct. 7, 2003.

Eisenberg said Rigali was fair game because he has "perpetuated" the alleged cover-up "by denying victims their legal rights."

The Philadelphia grand-jury report identified 63 priests who abused hundreds of children over several decades. The report blasted the archdiocese and its former leaders, accusing them of hiding and enabling the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.

No criminal charges were brought because the allegations of abuse were too old. However, the grand-jury report called for changes to state law that would permit the cases to proceed.

Michael Hinkelman 215-854-2656.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.