R.I. Superior Court Rules Conflicting Dates Won't Bar Abuse Suit Vs. Church

By Eric T. Berkman
Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly
May 21, 2007

Roman Catholic Church officials in Providence could not dismiss a priest-abuse suit as time-barred, even where the alleged victim offered conflicting testimony over when the childhood incidents occurred, a Superior Court judge has ruled.

The plaintiff, who filed the suit at age 23, testified in a deposition that the abuse may have happened after July 1, 1988 - the date the age of majority in Rhode Island was lowered from 21 to 18. In subsequent interrogatory answers, however, he said that the incidents had occurred before that date.

The church defendants argued that the deposition testimony should take precedence over the interrogatory answers, resulting in the claims being untimely since they were filed more than three years after the statute of limitations - tolled until the age of majority - began to run at age 18. But Judge Netti C. Vogel disagreed, denying the church defendants' motion for summary judgment.

"It would have been preferable for [the plaintiff] and his counsel to have developed the chronology before he was deposed, and the Court does not intend to condone such delay, but the Court will not disregard the interrogatory answer merely because it was supplemented late and may contradict earlier testimony," wrote Vogel.

Timothy J. Conlon of Providence and Carl P. DeLuca of Warwick represented the plaintiff. William T. Murphy, Thomas R. Bender and James T. Murphy, all of Providence, were counsel for the defendants.

Alleged abuse The plaintiff, Christopher Young, filed suit against the Rev. John Petrocelli and various members of the hierarchy under the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence on March 13, 2003, the eve of his 24th birthday.

According to the plaintiff, Petrocelli had sexually abused him when he was a boy and members of the hierarchy had negligently failed to prevent the abuse.

The plaintiff first revealed the alleged abuse to Monsignor Paul D. Theroux, a diocese official, in May 2002, when he was 23. The next day he was interviewed by the defendants' investigator, Robert McCarthy.

In the interview, the plaintiff told of early incidents of abuse; the earliest allegedly when the plaintiff failed his altar boy test while in elementary school.

During the interview, McCarthy asked leading questions to try and pin down the dates of the incidents and the plaintiff's exact age at the time. The plaintiff said he did not recall the exact dates or time sequences, but conceded with an apparent degree of uncertainty that they could have occurred either in 1988 or 1989.

Four years later, in a deposition session, the defendants' counsel inquired as to whether the plaintiff was a willing participant. In response, the plaintiff said, "No, I didn't like it, but at the time I didn't know any better when you're ten or eleven years old. " The defendants maintained that the statement was an admission that the incidents in question occurred when the plaintiff was 10 or 11 years old.

In a subsequent interrogatory answer, however, the plaintiff stated that the first incident of abuse occurred around the time of his first communion in May 1987.

The plaintiff's age at the time of the acts was a critical issue because, under R.I.G.L. Sect. 9-1-14(b), injury claims must be made within three years of the incident in question. But in child sex-abuse cases brought against non-perpetrator defendants, the statute of limitations is tolled until the child reaches the age of majority.

Prior to July 1, 1988, the age of majority for the purposes of tolling the statute was 21. But the General Assembly amended the tolling statute, lowering the age of majority to 18 as of July 1, 1988.

Thus, if the incidents in question had occurred prior to that date, the plaintiff would have to file suit before he turned 24, and his action would be timely. But if they had occurred after that date, he would have had to file suit before turning 21, and his claims would be time-barred.

The church officials filed for summary judgment, arguing that the incidents in question occurred after July 1, 1988, as admitted in the plaintiff's deposition testimony.

Genuine issue of material fact Vogel rejected the church officials' characterization of the interrogatory answers as a "sham" in the face of what the defendants maintained was unequivocal prior testimony.

"In this case, [the plaintiff's] testimony was not unequivocal," said the judge.

"Even the deposition testimony upon which the [h]ierarchy [d]efendants base their motion fails to provide unequivocal evidence that the alleged incidents occurred after July 1, 1988," said the judge.

Though Vogel conceded that she would have preferred the chronology of events to have been settled before the deposition, she was unwilling to throw out the interrogatory answer merely because it was subsequently supplemented and contradictory to earlier statements.

"While chastising [p]laintiff for such delay, the [c]ourt is reluctant to impose such a harsh remedy as striking the supplemental interrogatory answer and possibly denying [p]laintiff the right to pursue a claim that was timely filed," the judge said.

Accordingly, Vogel denied the church officials' motion for summary judgment.

CASE: Young v. Gelineau, et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 61-054-07 COURT: Superior Court ISSUE: Should a priest-abuse suit be dismissed on summary judgment as time-barred where there was conflicting testimony between the alleged victim's interrogatory answer and his deposition testimony over when the childhood incidents occurred? DECISION: No, because a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the events occurred before July 1, 1988 - the date when the age of majority was lowered from 21 to 18, and the determining factor as to when the statute of limitations for the abuse suit would be tolled


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