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Expert testifies diocese kept sexual abuse a secret

Feb 17, 2006 | Evidence that a priest operating in western Alaska was sexually abusing young girls was suppressed by Fairbanks Catholic Diocese officials under the secrecy rules instituted by the Catholic Church, according to testimony during a hearing in Nome Superior Court on Thursday.

A judge will continue to hear arguments today that could sway him to rule the statute of limitations has expired in a civil suit against the Diocese and the Society of Jesus. A trial is scheduled for Feb. 27.

If the case of Jane Doe 2 gets to trial, it would be the first of more than 90 civil suits filed in Alaska to make it to a jury. Nome Judge Ben Esch recently severed the Rev. James Poole from the suit. Attorneys for the diocese and Jesuits argue Esch also should throw out the claims against church leaders.

Jane Doe 2 and her attorneys argue the diocese and Jesuits knowingly allowed Poole to prey on children in Nome and other western Alaska parishes.

"A smoking gun" is how Doe attorney described a 1986 letter from the late Bishop Michael Kaniecki found in documents only recently turned over the plaintiffs by the diocese.

The letter is a response by Kaniecki to another woman's sexual abuse complaints about Poole, which occurred 20 years earlier. One of Jane Doe's attorneys argued the letter confirmed that Poole's sexual abuse practices were known to go back to the mid 1960s.

Another of Doe's attorneys, said the church had a secret policy and system in place to keep such charges secret.

An expert witness with an extensive background in canon law and church administration, including serving for five years in the Vatican embassy, testified that church officials cast a cloak of secrecy around the sexual practices of the priesthood.

The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a Dominican priest, said canon law is "the internal regulatory system used by the Catholic church" since the fourth century and to his knowledge the first civil case ever filed against a priest for child sexual abuse was in 1984, in Lafayette, La.

Doyle said the church did have rules regarding clergy engaging in misconduct with children that included how to conduct preliminary investigation and procedures. However, in March 1962, the Vatican installed a code dealing with four types of clergy malfeasance that was issued in secrecy to bishops around the world.

Doyle said that secrecy code wasn't replaced until 2001.

If anyone involved with a clerical complaint--plaintiff or defendant--broke the silence, they were automatically excommunicated, Doyle said.

Diocese attorney Robert Groseclose objected several times during the proceedings, saying canon law should be set aside.

"We are dealing with the law of the state of Alaska," he said. "A person needs to bring a lawsuit within a certain length of time."

The evidentiary hearing allows lawyers an opportunity to introduce trial evidence and witness testimony to determine whether or not Jane Doe 2 could or should have reported the abuse before the statute of limitations.

For criminal offenses against children 16 and under, Alaska law says the statute of limitations runs out three years after discovery of the injury. For crimes committed against children after the age of 16, charges must be brought within two years of the victim's 18th birthday.

According to Doe's deposition, she told of reporting the sexual abuse by Poole and a subsequent abortion to two different priests in the confessional, one in 1977 and another in 1991, and received no direction.

Doyle said the priests acted inappropriately.

"Given the gravity of what she was confessing, they should have instructed her to make a report to a proper superior, and all she got was some prayers," Doyle said.

Frederick Wise of the University of Washington, a clinical psychologist and defense expert witness, said Doe has a number of impairments, including substance abuse and borderline personality disorders. But he concluded she was capable of advocating on her own behalf.

And when asked if she understood the causal effect a certain action incurs, Wise said Doe understood the concept, pointing out she attempted suicide "to get her parents to quit drinking, among other things."

David J. Sperbeck, a licensed forensic psychologist with more than two decades of experience in Alaska and the plaintiff's expert witness, said Doe has "significant psychological problems, including early onset chronic depression since childhood, post traumatic stress syndrome, alcohol and cannabis abuse and a probable social disorder."

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