Diocese Can't Duck Child Sex Abuse Claim

By Rose Bouboushian
Courthouse News Service
July 9, 2013

(CN) - The Diocese of Camden, N.J. cannot dismiss a woman's claim that a priest sexually abused her repeatedly when she was 11 years old, a federal judge ruled.

     Lisa Syvertson Shanahan, 44, sued the Diocese of Camden on May 15, 2012, claiming she had been sexually abused as a child by an ordained Catholic priest, Father Thomas Harkins of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Hammonton, N.J.

     Shanahan, whose "devoutly Catholic" family "regularly attended Mass and participated in the ministry" at St. Anthony's, attended Harkins's catechism (CCD) classes while she was in fifth grade, from 1980-81, to prepare for religious confirmation.

     Harkins sexually abused her 10 to 15 occasions, in his office and his bedroom in the church rectory, "by touching her genitals over her underwear," the complaint states.

     During the final incident of abuse, Shanahan says, "Harkins brought [her] to his bedroom in the priest's home, the rectory, pulled down [her] tights, and sexual [sic] abused her by putting his hands on her genitals and digitally penetrating her."

     Harkins "also tried to force [Shanahan's] hand onto his penis," according to the complaint, and ultimately "told her that she was a good girl and reassured her that everything was okay with what he had done" to her.

     The sexual abuse stopped the summer before Shanahan started sixth grade, when Harkins was removed from the parish without explanation. Shanahan claims he was removed because of allegations that he had sexually abused another young girl at St. Anthony's.

     Shanahan seeks damages for supervisory negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and liability under New Jersey's Child Sexual Abuse Act, which "establishes two classes of abusers: those persons who inflict the abuse (active abusers), and those persons who stand in loco parentis within the household who know of the abuse and who fail to protect the child (passive abusers)," according to the state's supreme court.

     The Diocese moved for summary judgment on Sept. 10, 2012.

     U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman denied the motion on June 27, holding that the Diocese may have stood in loco parentis to Shanahan, and was thus capable of "passive" abuse.

     "Based on [plaintiff's] certification, it is clear that, at a minimum, Harkins had a responsibility for plaintiff's religious education as a member of the Catholic faith as well as a responsibility to supervise and care for plaintiff during the time the CCD classes were in session," Hillman wrote. "Moreover, it is precisely during these classes that plaintiff alleges she was sexually abused by Harkins."

     The Diocese also failed to show that it was not "within Shanahan's household," the ruling states.

     "In contrast, even before discovery has commenced in this case, plaintiff has presented evidence through her certification that Harkins sought her out not only in church during CCD classes, but also at her home where he came to practice readings for Mass with plaintiff and to attend dinner with plaintiff and her family," Hillman wrote. "Plaintiff's certification demonstrates that Harkins took affirmative steps to interact with plaintiff beyond the four walls of St. Anthony's and actively sought out close personal interaction with plaintiff and her family, in the privacy of their home."

     Hillman withheld ruling on Shanahan's claims for breach of fiduciary duty and negligent supervision and retention.

     Shanahan is represented by Daniel Hartstein, of Cherry Hill, N.J


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