Diocese of Camden Contests Timeline in Abuse Case

By Jim Walsh
July 14, 2013

The Diocese of Camden, seeking to block a lawsuit that claims child sex abuse by a priest, has cited phone calls made by the alleged victim in an effort to protect other youngsters.

Lisa Syvertson Shanahan contacted the diocese in 2004, saying she was molested in the early 1980s by the Rev. Thomas Harkins and she wanted to warn others about her former parish priest in Hammonton. Church officials heard from Shanahan again in 2012, when she sued the diocese over the alleged abuse.

U.S. District Court Judge Noel Hillman ruled June 27 that the lawsuit could proceed, accepting Shanahan’s argument that the two-year statute of limitations for her case began in October 2009. That’s when Shanahan says she realized she had grounds for legal action against the diocese.

The two sides agreed to suspend the passage of time toward the deadline after Aug. 8, 2011. But a diocesan lawyer has asked the judge to reconsider that view.

In a brief filed Thursday, attorney William DeSantis of Cherry Hill argued the clock began running when Shanahan called the diocese almost a decade ago and that time expired long before she filed the suit. During five conversations in 2004, DeSantis asserted, Shanahan learned “there had been other complaints about the offending priest and that he had been removed from the ministry in 2002.”

DeSantis said the calls should have led Shanahan to an awareness of her legal options in 2004.

“As a matter of law,” he asserted, “a reasonable 35-year-old woman who had been sexually abused as a child, who understood that sex abuse could harm a child, and who was told her abuser had been defrocked for abusing another child, would understand that she ‘may have a basis for an actionable claim’.”

DeSantis also challenged Shanahan’s claim “that she did not know she was injured when she contacted the diocese in 2004.”

Asked the attorney: “Why would she have felt it necessary, while reporting that she herself had been sexually assaulted by Harkins, to warn the diocese to “protect children from him if she did not understand that such abuse was injurious?”

DeSantis also challenged the judge’s finding that the diocese was part of Shanahan’s childhood household, in part because Harkins made multiple visits to her home. He said Hillman should consider “the relationship between (Shanahan) and the diocese, not Harkins.”

DeSantis said the judge’s failure to address those arguments in his ruling was a “manifest injustice” to the diocese. An attorney for Shanahan said the diocese was “making the same arguments that were previously rejected.”

Her attorney, Adam Horowitz of Miami, said Shanahan “did not yet believe she was harmed when she called the diocese in 2004. She also didn’t yet know that there had been a prior complaint about Father Harkins. So, she didn’t yet know the diocese was responsible for Harkins’ misconduct.”

“I look forward to putting these issues behind us and delving into what the diocese knew about Father Harkins ...” Horowitz said. “And what they did about it.”



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