Ruling Sets Back Sexual-Abuse Lawsuit Judge Says Diocese Not Liable; Attorney for Man Who Says He Was Molested Expects to Appeal

By Alan Cooper
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
June 9, 2005

An amendment to the Virginia Constitution that extended the time for filing a sexual-abuse lawsuit applies only to individual abusers and not to their employers, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday.

The ruling by Judge Walter W. Stout III will apparently result in the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Stephen Kopalchick, a 52-year-old Chester man who alleged that two priests abused him 40 years ago. Two years ago, Kopalchick sued the Catholic Diocese of Richmond in addition to one of the priests, Andrew Roy, who has Alzheimer's disease and moved to Spain after retiring in 1981, and the estate of the other priest, Thomas M. Summers, who died in 1992 at age 73.

Edward L. Weiner, Kopalchick's attorney, had alleged that the diocese was liable because its officials were aware that the priests were pedophiles and moved them to different positions and locations when questions were raised about them.

Weiner said he expects to appeal Stout's ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Under normal circumstances, the statute of limitations for such suits is two years, but an amendment to the constitution in 1994 and related legislation said the time does not begin to run until a victim of sexual abuse becomes aware that his or her injuries were caused by the abuse.

The state law extends the time during which a suit can be filed only to a "natural person." Weiner argued that the phrase did not change the general rule that the word "person" includes corporations, businesses and such entities as the diocese.

"That's a strong emotional argument," Stout said, "but I'm not sure it's a strong legal argument."

He said the more logical interpretation is that the legislature intended to extend the time a perpetrator, but not his employer, can be sued "because of the vile nature of these actions."

Kopalchick has said publicity in 2002 about the priest sex-abuse scandal in Boston stirred memories of the molestation he says he endured from 1962 to 1966. He said he did not associate the severe depression he was experiencing with the abuse until he was treated by a psychologist in 2002. He sued in 2003.

He alleged that the abuse occurred at St. James Catholic Church and elementary school in Hopewell. The school closed in 1992.

Kopalchick identified himself publicly last year to encourage other abuse victims to come forward.

Judge Stout took over the case recently after Judge Randall G. Johnson disqualified himself because of a conflict.


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