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Archdiocese Sued Over Abuse

Cover-up alleged; suit could be class action

May 13, 2004 | Detroit Free Press

The Archdiocese of Detroit, which has scrambled for two years to remove priests accused of sexually abusing minors, is the target of a lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of people who claim to have been abused as children.

The legal strategy is an attempt to get around statutes of limitation on such abuse that have stalled other legal actions, Anderson said. "We've used this kind of lawsuit very sparingly. One is pending in southern California against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and a lawsuit has been certified as a class action in Covington, Ky., against the Diocese of Covington."

This the first such lawsuit to be filed against Catholic leaders in Michigan. For the lawsuit to proceed as a class action, the plaintiffs' lawyers must convince the judge that there are many others who were similarly abused by area priests.

The Wayne County suit includes harrowing stories of sexual abuse from four men, though only three are named and only two spoke with reporters Wednesday.

John Fruciano of Clinton Township, a retired General Motors employee who said he was abused by the Rev. Robert Burkholder in the 1950s, said in a phone interview that he joined the suit because what happened to him "was wrong. I was offended. Other people were offended, and the church hid it."

Burkholder, now in his 80s and reportedly disabled, served 30 days in jail in 2002 after he was convicted of past abuse. Another civil lawsuit against the archdiocese, filed on behalf of an alleged Burkholder victim, is pending in the state Court of Appeals.

On Wednesday, Timothy Hassett of Kalamazoo took part in a sidewalk demonstration in downtown Detroit with others who said they've been abused. He held a photo of the Rev. C. Richard Kelly Jr., the priest who he said abused him in the early 1970s at St. Mary of Redford parish in Detroit.

Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida removed Kelly from St. Thomas a'Becket parish in Canton on Feb. 26, citing allegations of past abuse. The archdiocese never revealed the victim's name, and it was unclear whether Hassett's claims led to Kelly's removal.

In the suit, Hassett said Kelly pulled him out of a third-grade class at St. Mary's School, took him to a rectory and sexually abused him. The abuse allegedly went on for more than two years in the parish and during outings.

The Archdiocese of Detroit was named as the sole defendant, but the lawsuit listed the names of 16 priests, including Burkholder and Kelly, who Southfield attorney Justin Ravitz said were involved in the pattern of abuse. Ravitz joined with Anderson and Southfield attorney Cyril Weiner in filing the lawsuit.

When pressed for details, Ravitz said he does not represent victims of many of the priests named. "I believe that with everyone listed there, we can produce supportive evidence," he said Wednesday.

That led to a series of charges and countercharges. At least one of the named priests has never been publicly accused of abuse. Late Wednesday, Ravitz explained that he has heard from a woman who said she is a victim, so he included the priest's name in the lawsuit.

Ned McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said that one accusation was made against the priest a year ago, but after an investigation, was not deemed credible.

Another of the named priests does not appear in published lists of archdiocesan clergy. When asked about him, Ravitz said he believes the priest may have passed through Detroit "in a very clandestine way."

McGrath said archdiocesan officials had not seen the lawsuit and could not respond to it.

None of the named priests nor their attorneys could be reached for comment.

The lawsuit was filed after a demonstration staged in downtown Detroit by Ravitz and alleged victims of sexual abuse who are part of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

"The few victims named in the lawsuit today are representative of a larger class. These few are filing the lawsuit to allow any victims in the Archdiocese of Detroit to know that it's now time to come forward," said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder of SNAP who stood with others who said they were victims.

Anderson said that if a judge allows the lawsuit to proceed, attorneys expect to enlarge their investigation through court-ordered discovery of archdiocesan records.

The archdiocese previously acknowledged that it has paid settlements to abuse victims totaling about $1.4 million. The suit filed Wednesday asks for an unspecified amount.

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