Phila. Case Set a High Bar in Sex-Abuse Suits

By Nancy Phillips
March 17, 2002

The young man was soon to be married. His parents insisted that the family priest be invited to the wedding.

The priest had dined with them, joined them on outings, even accompanied them on family vacations. Why wasn't he on the guest list?

Their son finally blurted out why: the priest, he said, had sexually abused him years earlier when he was a student at Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia and later, as a seminarian preparing for the priesthood.

The man eventually abandoned his plan to become a priest. Instead, he sued the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over the abuse. But because the man waited until he was 27 to do so, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that it was too late.

In a harshly worded 1993 opinion, the court said it found it "beyond comprehension" that the man had waited so many years to bring his lawsuit.

It tossed out the suit. That, say advocates for those harmed by sexual abuse, victimized the man all over again - and failed to recognize the special trauma that distinguishes victims of sexual assault from those of other crimes.

Today, the ruling in the case known only by the man's initials - EJM - remains an oft-cited precedent around the nation. The state court took a hard line in a classic legal dilemma: how to balance the right of the accused to face accusers promptly against the right of victims to obtain justice.

Under Pennsylvania law, the court emphasized, victims of childhood sexual abuse generally have until age 20 to sue their abusers. That is one of the most restrictive time limits in the nation, legal experts say.

In New Jersey, suits can be filed at any age as long as a person can demonstrate injury stemming from the abuse.

In recent weeks, lawmakers in Harrisburg have moved to make the Pennsylvania law less restrictive. Legislation that would extend the statute of limitations on civil suits in such cases is pending in the state Senate, and one lawmaker from the area is preparing a bill that would eliminate it altogether.

The push to amend the law comes at a time when the Philadelphia Archdiocese has acknowledged that it has "credible evidence" that 35 diocesan priests had sexually abused 50 children over the last five decades. Those figures do not include sex abuse by priests who work for religious orders, such as the Franciscan Friars, the order to which the alleged abuser belonged.

The unfolding details of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have spurred efforts to amend the law, said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, (R., Montgomery). He's pushing to extend the statute of limitations to allow lawsuits to be filed any time before the victim reaches 30.

"We have to expand it because the victims think they're at fault when they're children," said Greenleaf, whose bill has attracted bipartisan support. "It takes them years to understand the gravity of it and the harm it causes them."

The Pennsylvania case embodies a pattern seen in other instances of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic clergy: the accuser came forward years after the incidents; the church took a tough legal stance before eventually settling the suit with a confidentiality agreement; and there is little way to know what steps, if any, the church took to investigate the accused priest or to report the accusation to police or prosecutors.

Catherine L. Rossi, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia archdiocese, declined to discuss the allegations against the priest.

As the lawsuit unfolded, lawyers for the archdiocese's insurance company engaged in hardball legal tactics - contending, among other things, that the plaintiff's parents had not properly supervised him.

Rossi said the insurer took that approach against the advice of the church's own lawyers. She said the church could not prevent the lawyers from doing so under the terms of its insurance policy.

From age 14 until he was almost 20, the man's lawsuit contends, he was subject to sexual abuse.

On hundreds of occasions between 1976 and 1981, the suit said, the Rev. Terrance Pinkowski kissed, hugged and fondled the young man and had oral sex with him.

As the teen grew up, the priest told him that this all was "therapy," part of his spiritual preparation for ordination. The incidents took place at the high school and in the priest's room at the friary on the school campus, according to the lawsuit.

The man, who is now married, declined to comment and asked that he not be identified because he said he was working to rebuild his life.

The priest, who died in 1991 while the suit was pending, denied any sexual contact with his former student.

"He always denied it," said Father Pinkowski's lawyer, Eugene J. Maginnis Jr. "He denied it, and obviously [the plaintiff] testified that it happened."

For years, the suit said, the man struggled with feelings of guilt and blamed himself for what happened. The priest, he said, assured him that the sex acts were appropriate.

"He told me that this therapy was necessary for my spiritual growth and preparation for ordination and that it would rid me of pride unpleasing to God," the plaintiff said in an affidavit filed with the court.

"Because of the aspiration I had to be a priest and the exalted position in which priests were regarded within my family, I did not believe . . . that Father Pinkowski's actions with me were wrong," he said.

"My mindset was that because he was a priest, he had to be right about this therapy and training being necessary for me to become a good priest."

As the man was preparing to wed in June 1988, having given up on his plan to join the priesthood, his secret came out. His parents, devout Catholics, ultimately joined him as plaintiffs in his lawsuit.

The suit named Father Pinkowski, the archdiocese, the high school, the Church of Christ the King, where he had attended weekly prayer meetings led by the priest, and the Franciscan Friars.

Lawyers for the church responded by denying the abuse and arguing that the statute of limitations had expired.

At the time he filed suit, the plaintiff was 27, seven years older than Pennsylvania law allows in such cases unless an exception is granted, which is rare.

"Every civil action is subject to a statute of limitations," Martin G. Malloy, the lawyer for the Franciscan Friars, said in a recent interview.

"If you can wait forever, memories get faded, you can't find witnesses. You can't put the case together. . . . People who are harmed by things have a responsibility to seek remedies relatively quickly."

In a move that the man and his family later said they found painful, lawyers for the archdiocese's insurer contended that if the court finds that Father Pinkowski sexually abused the young man, it should hold his parents partially responsible.

The insurer's lawyers argued that the parents could be considered "contributorily negligent" for not properly supervising their son and entrusting him to the priest's care.

But the court never got to weigh the merits of that claim or the allegations of sexual abuse.

The plaintiff's lawyers asked the court to extend the statute of limitations in the case. They argued that he had "rationalized" the priest's behavior and had not realized for many years that it amounted to sexual abuse and had caused him psychological injury.

They said the clock on the statute of limitations should start ticking only at the point when the man realized he had been victimized.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected that argument.

"Although he allegedly blamed himself," the court said, "that alone does not relieve him of the duty to investigate and bring suit within the limitations period."

The man appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but abandoned that course when the church offered him a confidential settlement.

Advocates for victims of child sexual abuse lament the case and say the court ruling it prompted has made it difficult for others to seek compensation years later for their suffering.

"Sexual-abuse victims suffer in secrecy and silence and shame for years. They suffer, and years later come out with it. The courts in Pennsylvania refuse to recognize that dynamic," said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul, Minn., who worked on the Pennsylvania case with Philadelphia lawyer Laurence S. Berman.

New Jersey law, by contrast, specifically recognizes that a time delay may be necessary "because of the unique nature of sexual abuse, which may only be discovered by a victim after years of repression."

Stephen Rubino, a lawyer in Margate, N.J., who has filed many suits alleging child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, said the New Jersey law was a model that other states have followed.

"New Jersey has been looked at as very forward-thinking on the protection of civil rights for sexual-abuse victims," he said. "And unfortunately, just the opposite is true in Pennsylvania".

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which represents bishops across the state, supports some limits on the ability to sue.

"The general concern would be about anything that extends us way back in history and would cause a problem for a present bishop or administrator that was not even involved in these things from the past," said Robert O'Hara, the group's executive director.

Legal experts say that in fairness to the accused, it is appropriate for such suits to have time limits.

"These are ghastly things, but I don't see why the church - put aside these priests - should have civil liability indefinitely," said Geoffrey Hazard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Elizabeth Barthholet, a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in child welfare and family law, said the trend in recent years has been for states to extend the time limit for filing suits in child sex-abuse cases.

"Sex abuse is a crime and a civil violation that people have taken more seriously in the last couple of decades," she said. "The law has been moving in the direction of more protections in this area."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.