Judge to Decide on Time Issue in Priest-Abuse Suits

By Ron Goldwyn
Philadelphia Daily News
June 28, 2004

The courtroom fireworks finally begin late next week for two dozen men who have sued the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, claiming that as minors they were sexually abused by Catholic priests.

Common Pleas Judge Arnold L. New will hear arguments July 8 on a crucial threshhold issue that could determine whether the men ultimately get a day in court:

Were the suits filed too late because of the statute of limitations, or can victims argue that a continuing coverup means they are still being harmed?

"This will be a big day for a lot of people," said Jay Abramowitch, a Berks County lawyer who has 18 suits before New.

Last week, a three-judge panel in Lehigh County accepted Abramowitch's legal theory in similar cases.

The judges rejected arguments by the Diocese of Allentown to dismiss six suits because the statute of limitations had expired on long-ago abuse. But they said the diocese can raise the point later on.

"This is the precise issue that Judge New will be hearing in argument on July 8," Abramowitch said. "The significance of this can't be overstated."

He said he can proceed with discovery in Allentown from diocesan witnesses and "secret files" tied to abuse and coverups.

Philadelphia lawyer Stewart Eisenberg, who has five suits before New, called the hearing "very important. It could decide a whole group of cases."

The July 8 argument won't deal with sealed church records - yet.

But if New lets suits proceed, it could open up the archdiocese's "secret archives" for discovery.

The archives, mentioned in canon law, are a store of sensitive documents and personnel files that the suing lawyers see as a treasure trove of data.

A priest who has testified on behalf of victims and served as an expert witness for a Philadelphia grand jury on the inner workings of Catholic hierarchy says every diocese is required to keep confidential files that include "matters of morals."

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon (church) lawyer and retired military chaplain, said bishops "regularly try to hide behind the secret archives." But he said the files are "not confessional matter" and therefore aren't legally protected.

The archdiocese and its lawyer declined to discuss the archives or the suits.

The archdiocese has filed motions to dismiss all the suits on grounds that the statute of limitations has "time-barred" the abuse complaints.

It argues there's no proof of "fraudulent concealment" - a coverup or continuing harm - on its part.

The church's motion says alleged victims had ample opportunity to take criminal complaints to the authorities and to sue their perpetrators. It says they have now forfeited that right because "the two-year statute of limitations expired long ago."

C. Clark Hodgson Jr., lawyer for the archdiocese, declined to discuss the cases. His firm, Stradley, Ronon, Stevens and Young, also represents Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the estate of the late Cardinal John Krol and religious orders named in the suits.

The suits allege molesting incidents from the 1960s to the 1980s, when the plaintiffs were under 18. All were filed this year.

Lawyers say a coverup by Catholic authorities continues to harm their clients and protect abuser priests. Therefore, they say, the statute doesn't apply.

Suits have rained down on the archdiocese as a Philadelphia grand jury moves into its third year of investigating its role in clergy sexual abuse of minors.

The criminal and civil proceedings are on separate legal tracks. But plaintiffs' lawyers say they hope the grand jury will file indictments, and unearth evidence, that could buttress their cases.

Not included in the July 8 hearing is the latest suit, alleging abuse by the Rev. Charles Newman, former Archbishop Ryan High School principal.

That suit by Arthur Baselice 3rd of Mantua, N.J., alleges mid-1990s molesting and related payoffs within the past two years. It could be affected by a recent change extending the statute of limitations the courts have yet to rule on.

The suits before Judge New cite priests, many retired, defrocked or dead, and details of specific crimes against boys. But Abramowitch said he doesn't list priests as defendants in order to focus on church higherups.

Co-counsel Richard Serbin said dioceses and cardinals are liable "because of the coverup of predator priests' behavior and failure to warn parents about these priests' pedophiliac background."

Serbin said a judge in western Pennsylvania recently "dismissed the church's objections in pleadings similar to ours" on time-barred cases.

Serbin filed suit in January for four Pittsburgh area men against the Diocese of Pittsburgh - and against the bishop at the time of the alleged abuse: Bevilacqua.

There's no telling when Judge New will decide the motion. If he rejects the archdiocese's argument, the next step will be legal maneuvering to open up files - and to quiz diocesan officials.

They would then face questions about dozens of abuse victims, how complaints were handled, and what discipline or sheltering the priests received.

No sexual abuse suit against the archdiocese has come to trial in Philadelphia.


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