Abuse Suit against Diocese Lingers on

By Scott MacKay
Providence Journal [Providence RI]
June 18, 2007

Providence — In 2002, the Most Rev. Robert E. Mulvee, then bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, reached a $14-million settlement in 36 sexual-abuse lawsuits against parish priests, ending what was believed at the time to be the longest stretch of legal action over clergy misconduct in the United States.

As part of that settlement, the diocese agreed to a mediation and arbitration system that handled remaining clergy abuse lawsuits short of trial, by paying settlements of $25,000 to $50,000 to victims and offering them pastoral help and therapy.

That system has worked fairly well, say lawyers for both victims and the diocese; about 50 sexual-abuse claims have been settled for a total of about $2 million under mediation and arbitration.

Yet, one from the 1980s involving former priest John Petrocelli, of Holy Family Church in Woonsocket, has eluded settlement. Christopher Young, of Lincoln, who is now 28, alleges that Petrocelli sexually abused him in a series of incidents that began when Young was in elementary school and flunked his altar boy test. At that time the bishop was the Most Rev. Louis E. Gelineau.

Young's lawyer, Carl DeLuca of Warwick, asserts the diocese should settle the case in favor of his client. "It should have been settled…. I think the new bishop [Thomas J. Tobin] just doesn't get it and they're fighting us on a technicality."

James Murphy, lawyer for the bishop, disagrees. "I don't know what this bishop's view of this case is…. I can tell you I have an obligation to my client to defend the bishop and the church in Rhode Island."

As the case winds its way through the courts, lawyers for Bishop Tobin are arguing that the statute of limitations ran out on Young's claim, that he is not eligible for a monetary award and that the suit should be dismissed.

Young filed suit against Petrocelli and the bishop on March 13, 2003, on the eve of his 24th birthday. In an interview with the diocese's investigator, Robert McCarthy, Young traced the first incident of abuse to 1988 or 1989, but said he had a degree of uncertainty.

Later, in a deposition, Young said the first incident of abuse occurred around the time of his first communion, in May 1987.

Young's age at the time was — and remains — a critical issue, says Murphy, lawyer for the bishop. Before July 1, 1988, the age of majority in Rhode Island for purposes of being exempt from the statue of limitations was 21. But then the General Assembly changed the majority age to 18 as of July 1988.

Thus, if the abuse incidents happened before July 1, 1988, Young would have had to file suit before turning 24. But if the abuse occurred after that date, Young would have had to file suit before turning 21 and his claim would have been barred by the elapsed time.

Young alleged that Petrocelli fondled him and forced him to shower naked with the priest after swimming.

Last month, Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel denied the church's motion to dismiss Young's claim because of the time issue. The next step, DeLuca says, is to take the case to a jury trial.

"I can't predict the future," Murphy said. "We're doing our job as lawyers on both sides."


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