State Supreme Court Upholds $1 Million Verdict in Priest Sex Abuse Case

Hartford Courant
June 26, 2015

The state Supreme Court Friday upheld a $1 million verdict in a priest sexual abuse case while at the same time rejecting an argument by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford that a state law that extended the statute of limitations for potential victims to file a lawsuit was unconstitutional.

In February 2012, a jury in Waterbury awarded a former altar boy $1 million after a trial in which the victim, identified in court papers as Jacob Doe, testified that he and a friend were repeatedly molested and sexually assaulted by the Rev. Ivan Ferguson and a friend of the priest.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court last year, the archdiocese argued to overturn the verdict based on a variety of claims including that the trial judge erred by not allowing an expert witness to testify for the church and by allowing the jury to hear testimony from a deposition of Ferguson, who died years ago.

But the most controversial argument was that the state legislature's decision in 2002 to extend the statute of limitations for civil cases on sexual assault claims to 30 years from when a complainant reaches 18 was unconstitutional.

The statute of limitations had previously been 17 years. The change was retroactive.

The diocese's attorneys argued that under the original law, Jacob Doe would have had until 1988 to file a lawsuit, and that even after the measure was initially amended in 1991 to the 17-year statute, the plaintiff's right to file a lawsuit would have expired in 2003.

It was only after it was changed once again in 2002 that the plaintiff was able to file the lawsuit, which was not only "unconstitutional but unfair to the church or any other institution," the lawyers argued.

But in a 57-page decision, the court rejected all of the churches' argument and upheld the verdict.

"Given the unique psychological and social factors that often result in delayed reporting of childhood sexual abuse, which frustrated the ability of victims to bring an action under earlier revisions of the statute of limitations, we cannot say that the legislature acted unreasonably or irrationally in determining that the revival of child sexual abuse victims' previously time-barred claims serves a legitimate public interest and accomplishes that purpose in a reasonable way," the ruling said.

The archdiocese was first made aware of Ferguson's abuse by a phone call in 1979. At the time, Ferguson was a teacher at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford.

At the trial, testimony showed that when former Archbishop John F. Whealon confronted him about the 1979 allegation, Ferguson admitted to the abuse. Ferguson was sent to a treatment facility in Massachusetts. Two years later, Whealon appointed Ferguson priest director of a Derby parochial school.

Ferguson and his friend were accused of abusing Doe and his childhood friend at, among other places, the rectory to which Ferguson had been reassigned in Derby. Ferguson died in 2002. He had been deposed for a different lawsuit in 1997 and had testified he was treated for only alcohol addiction.

The Supreme Court rejected all of the diocese legal arguments, concluding the jury's verdict was proper.

"The present case presented the jury with the far simpler question of whether it was reasonable for the defendant to put Ferguson who was known to the defendant as a child molester whose pedophilic tendencies were exacerbated by alcohol back in a position where he was in contact with minors and, thus, roll the proverbial dice about whether Ferguson would ever drink alcohol and revert to his dangerous sexual proclivities," the court ruled.








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