Plaintiff: Diocese Settlement Won't Stop 'Vicious Cycle'

By Craig Smith
September 23, 2007

Dennis McKeown is hoping for a change in state law that would allow more people who claim to have been abused by priests to have their day in court.

"Nothing can make our lives whole. It's ripped our lives apart," said McKeown, 44, who sued the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in March of 2004. He claimed to have been abused by John Hoehl, a priest who was removed from ministry in 1988 and permanently dismissed in 2004.

McKeown and two other plaintiffs rejected a portion of a $1.25 million settlement of 32 lawsuits against the diocese to continue pursuing their cases. Instead of taking a cash award of about $40,000, he wants state lawmakers to create a window in the state's statute of limitations so their sexual abuse lawsuits can be heard.

"It's not about the money," he said. "It's the only way society will have an opportunity to find out who these men are and where they are. It's ultimately going to make one of the largest entities in the world stop this vicious cycle."

The two other plaintiffs who opted out of the settlement were not identified in court documents. Attorneys for the group of plaintiffs said their clients would not comment about the settlement.

The current statute of limitations gives alleged victims two years after their 18th birthdays to file a lawsuit. But judges are dismissing many cases because the plaintiffs filed their lawsuits as middle-aged adults, claiming abuse occurred when they were children.

McKeown, of Beaver Falls, is not alone in pushing for changes. A coalition of organizations wants the state Legislature to abolish the deadline for filing future civil lawsuits and suspend for two years the statute of limitations on cases already filed.

"If you can't bring suit, the people who did the abuse are out there, working in rec centers, schools ... because they know the statute has tolled," said John Salveson, founder and president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse Inc., one of the groups in the coalition, dubbed PA Cares.

An organization of Catholic bishops and their dioceses opposes the effort to extend the statute of limitations. In California, the creation of a similar window resulted in the filing of 800 lawsuits, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said.

"The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference opposes legislation similar to California's because it is unworkable and unfair," said Amy Beisel, spokeswoman for the group. Beisel said the older a case is, the harder it becomes to obtain evidence and witnesses.

But Gov. Ed Rendell supports an extension of the statute of two years or longer, said his spokesman, Chuck Ardo.

"He believes many victims don't gain memories of the incident until they are older, and it takes longer to process the trauma," said Ardo, who sees the potential for action on the measures this year.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have discussed a number of measures, including whether to create a one-year window during which people could file civil lawsuits against clergy for sexual abuse no matter when it happened, said John Ryan, executive director of the House judiciary committee.

A bill introduced earlier this year by state Rep. Lisa Bennington, D-Allegheny, would extend the statute of limitations by 32 years, allowing people to file civil lawsuits until they reach the age of 50. The bill remains in committee, and Bennington said she is hopeful the measure will be voted on this year.

McKeown was a student at Quigley Catholic High School, where Hoehl served as headmaster from 1971 to 1985. McKeown said the alleged abuse occurred between 1973 and 1983 at the priest's home and a cabin on the Youghiogheny River.

David Zubik, who will be installed Friday as Pittsburgh's new bishop, could not be reached for comment for this story.

However, when the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced the settlement last Monday, he said: "I think it is paramount that, as Church, we do what we can to bring healing to people who have been harmed. It is my hope that the proactive stance that the Diocese of Pittsburgh has consistently taken will also help to rebuild trust in the Church with this resolution."

Hoehl withdrew from priestly service in 1988 and was dismissed from all priestly obligations in 2004. In his lawsuit, McKeown, who said he is no longer Catholic, sought unspecified damages.

Under the settlement announced last week, the diocese will establish a $1.25 million "Outreach Fund" to be divided by retired Allegheny County Judge Alan Penkower. The diocese also will pay for counseling.

McKeown, a businessman in Beaver County, also would like the Pittsburgh diocese to build a home for troubled youth. Diocesan spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwin said he had not heard about the call for a youth home.

McKeown said, "I want to see something positive come out of this. My intent was never to drag the church through the mud."

Craig Smith can be reached at or 412-380-5646.


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