Judge: Too Much Time Has Passed for Priest Abuse Suit

By Christy Gutowski
Chicago Daily Herald
November 19, 2004

A judge tossed out a lawsuit Thursday in which two brothers sued the Joliet Diocese, claiming three priests abused them nearly 40 years ago while they attended St. John the Baptist Church in Winfield.

DuPage Circuit Judge John T. Elsner ruled a new state law extending the time limit for lawsuits in cases of sexual abuse of children cannot be applied retroactively to revive the brothers' allegations.

John and Jeff Welch, both in their late 40s and living on the East Coast, filed the lawsuit Oct. 14, 2003, alleging the sexual abuse continued for six years until 1968, when their family moved to New Jersey.

The priests named in the suit are John C. Slown, Arno Dennerlein and Richard Ruffalo, who died in 1997 at 62.

In 1983, Slown was convicted of sexually abusing a boy, was defrocked and then moved to Colorado. The abuse occurred while he served at St. Irene Catholic Church in Warrenville.

The diocese placed Dennerlein, former pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Lombard, on administrative leave last year after allegations surfaced in another lawsuit that he had molested another boy some 25 years ago.

At a press conference announcing the lawsuit last year, John Welch said he reported the allegations to church officials in New Jersey after he turned 18. He said he was assured the matter would be handled. The suit alleges diocesan officials, including Bishop Joseph Imesch, conspired to cover up the molestation charges.

In July 2003, state legislators voted overwhelmingly to approve changes to the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit in a sex abuse case from two to 10 years after the victim's 18th birthday, or five years after the victim realizes he or she was were harmed by an abuser.

In his ruling Thursday, Elsner said the state law is ambiguously written.

It's the second time in recent months a judge has tossed out a priest sex abuse lawsuit based on a similar interpretation of the new law. In August, Cook County Judge Diane Joan Larsen angered victim advocacy groups when she, too, said it was not lawmakers' intent for the new law to be applied retroactively. That case is being appealed.

A sponsor of the state law, state Rep. James Brosnahan, a Democrat from Evergreen Park, was not available for comment Thursday. But he has stated in a court affidavit in response to Larsen's ruling that his remarks were misconstrued, and that he intends to further clarify the law.

Marc Pearlman, who represents the Welch brothers, said they are considering their options, which include appealing Elsner's ruling to a higher court or asking the judge to reconsider.

"We believe the statute is intended to apply retroactively, and certainly the bill's sponsors have stated that that was their intent," Pearlman said.

Groups such as Survivors of those Abused by Priests and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault have said they too believe the law would apply retroactively.

The diocese welcomed Elsner's ruling. The suit is one of about 10 pending against the diocese alleging a priest abuse cover-up.

"It's very difficult to determine what happened nearly 40 years ago," said John Cullen, diocese spokesman. "To try to get a clear picture of what happened is almost impossible. They did wait 35 years to file this suit."


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