Diocese Remains at Risk
Judge Allows Lawsuit to Proceed - for Now
By Makeba Scott Hunter
November 4, 2004
A Morris County judge Wednesday refused to dismiss a civil suit against the Diocese of Paterson brought by 25 people who claim to have been sexually abused as children by Catholic priests.
Before a packed courtroom, Judge Deanne M. Wilson denied a motion by the diocese, stating that she needed more facts about the alleged victims' mental states before she could make a fair ruling. She requested that each side present more evidence and submit to a pretrial hearing in the near future.
"Today's ruling by the New Jersey Superior Court is an important and dramatic victory for the 25 people I represent," said lead plaintiff attorney Gregory G. Gianforcaro during a press conference on the courthouse steps.
Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for the Diocese, noted that the judge dismissed the motion "without prejudice," meaning defense attorneys could ask for dismissal at another time.
Diocese lawyers, led by Ken Mullaney, sought the dismissal on grounds that the statute of limitation for the offenses had expired when the case was filed in January. In New Jersey, child sexual abuse victims forfeit their right to pursue a civil suit once they reach 20 years of age. All of the plaintiffs are over 20, and one plaintiff's statute of limitation expired 36 years ago, said Mullaney.
Plaintiffs' attorneys claimed that their clients' cases were protected by two exceptions to the statute of limitations - repressed memory and delayed discovery - and therefore the trial should move forward.
The repressed memory exception recognizes that some child sex abuse victims don't recall their abuse until they are adults. Delayed discovery applies when a victim remembers the abuse, but does not connect it to personal duress and harm until they are adults. Both instances nullify the statute of limitation and injured parties may pursue civil remedies at any time.
Twenty-one of the 25 plaintiffs claim Father James Hanley, who served in five Paterson Diocese parishes, sexually abused them in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Hanley was never charged with a crime but was removed as a priest in 2003. He has provided a sworn statement to the plaintiffs' side admitting his abuse, according to court documents. Consequently, Hanley has not been named in the suit, said Gianfocaro.
Other priests named as abusers in the case are the Revs. Thomas Rainforth, Julian Varittoni, Jose Alonzo and Donald Sella, and Deacon Carlos Guzmon.
Three other New Jersey parishes have faced similar cases recently. The Dioceses of Metuchen, Camden and, most recently, the Archdiocese of Newark, have all settled lawsuits alleging sexual abuse of minors.
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