Judge Reinstates Civil Lawsuit against Catholic Diocese of El Paso

By Ramon Bracamontes
El Paso Times
May 4, 2009

EL PASO - A visiting state judge on Monday reinstated a civil lawsuit in which a "John Doe" claimed that he was molested by a Catholic priest in the 1960s.

The suit against the Catholic Diocese of El Paso had been dismissed in March by County Court Judge Javier Alvarez, who said the statute of limitations had expired.

But Senior District Court Judge Stephen B. Ables set aside the dismissal order and scheduled two hearings, saying he wanted to make sure the suit was evaluated properly.

Ables, of Kerrville, said the first hearing will be in mid-June and will be used to decide if expert testimony on eliminating statute-of-limitation laws should be considered.

The anonymous plaintiff who filed the lawsuit said he was molested in 1964 by The Rev. James Hay, who was a priest at Our Lady of the Light Parish. The plaintiff filed his lawsuit in 2006, saying Hay repeatedly assaulted him while he was an altar boy more than 40 years earlier. Hay is now deceased, according to the lawsuit.

Alvarez dismissed the lawsuit without conducting a hearing. He later withdrew from the case after John Doe's lawyers filed a motion alleging that Alvarez had a conflict of interest. They said Alvarez had donated more than $8,000 to the Catholic Church from his campaign account.

Ables, the presiding judge for this region, then assigned himself to the case.

After a brief hearing Monday in the El Paso County Courthouse, Ables said a hearing on whether some expert testimony should be allowed needed to be held. After that, he said, he would conduct a final hearing on the merits of the lawsuit.

"A sensitive case like this requires us to do everything we can to produce a record that can be scrutinized later by others," Ables said.

While on the bench, he also said the case could lead to a historic ruling in Texas on how statutes of limitation should be applied to sexual assault allegations involving priests.

El Paso attorneys T.O. Gilstrap and Clark Harmonson filed the lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese and Monsignor Thomas Rowland on behalf of John Doe. Rowland is not accused of abusing anyone. He is named because he refused to report the case to authorities, the lawsuit alleged.

In response, the diocese filed a motion asking that the lawsuit be thrown out because the alleged molestation occurred more than 40 years ago, plenty of time for John Doe to complain or file charges.

"It seems to me that Judge Alvarez handled this case exactly as it should have been handled," said Frank Ainsa Jr., the El Paso lawyer representing the diocese.

Ramon Bracamontes may be reached at; 546-6142.


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