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Liability In Scandal Shadows Diocese

More claims possible as lawyers map their legal strategies

Mar 16, 2003 | Albany Times Union

He never really considered telling anyone about the sexual abuse by his high school principal.

But David, a 47-year-old unemployed Saratoga County man, changed his mind when he heard last month that his alleged abuser, the Rev. James Kelly, was removed from ministry and that other victims were coming forward.

"Where is my settlement? What about all the guilt and humiliation and shame I've been walking around with all these years?" said David, who asked that only his first name be used.

It's impossible to know how many people are like David, men with previously undisclosed allegations of sexual abuse by a priest who are waiting to see how the church, courts and state Legislature ultimately decide how to resolve the wave of legal claims.

David has not notified the Albany Diocese, and he doesn't even have a lawyer yet. But a friend of his who is also an attorney gave him some standard advice: Don't talk to church officials, because what you say could be used against you in court.

A potential lawsuit like David's is, on its face, time-barred, meaning New York's three-year statute of limitations expired long ago.

But because of cases similar to David's, a cloud of liability and financial worries looms over the Albany Diocese. At least six people who say they were abused have filed lawsuits. Interviews with attorneys and victims suggest dozens more are waiting quietly, at least for now to decide how to proceed.

Dioceses around the country are settling lawsuits that have appeared to be beyond the statute of limitations. Last week, the Diocese of Camden, N.J., agreed to pay a total of $880,000 to settle lawsuits involving 23 alleged victims.

One avenue for some victims, with or without an attorney, is to ask for an out-of-court settlement from the diocese. Through a process set in place in Albany late last year, victims can lodge their complaint with the diocesan sexual misconduct panel, which then advises Bishop Howard Hubbard and his attorney what sort of financial offer, if any, should be made.

"We are attempting to dispose of them through that system first," said Schenectady attorney John Massaroni, who said he has five clients with claims against the church, three against the Albany Diocese.

"Until that fails, I'm not making any plans to file a lawsuit. But I am not dismissing that as a possibility," Massaroni said. He expects to finish his negotiations within six months.

The Albany Diocese does not say how many victims have come forward with allegations or how much money has been paid out this year to victims. The diocese said it will announce the financial figure on an annual basis, starting sometime this year.

The financial impact that numerous settlements would have on the 14-county diocese is one of many concerns the sexual misconduct panel must consider.

"Certainly we understand the scope of our responsibility," Christopher Rutnik, an Albany attorney recently appointed to the seven-member panel, said when asked about financial concerns. "All those things are within the gamut of our concerns and responsibilities as panel members. We think about all those things."

Some victims, however, are seeking more than money from the church.

"Healing will come for victims when they come clean. We want the truth," said Curtis Oathout, who was sexually abused as a teenager by the Rev. David Bentley. He already had received $375,000 in settlement money when he filed one of the first lawsuits against the diocese in December.

Albany Law School Professor Timothy Lytton said the the public disclosure of internal church documents in the course of litigation may satisfy some victims more than any final monetary reward.

"Litigation is not just about going to court and getting a judgment," Lytton said. "Information is one very important thing that litigation produces even when it is not successful in getting a jury verdict."

Lytton pointed to the role high-profile lawsuits have played in putting public pressure on the tobacco and gun industries, initiating reform where legislators were unsuccessful.

"The church exercises an enormous amount of lobbying power. But the church's political power doesn't affect plaintiffs' lawyers the way it affects legislators," Lytton said.

He pointed to the Legislature's failure last year to pass a bill making priests join teachers and doctors who are required by law to report suspected sexual abuse of children.

Legislators are considering that measure again this year as well as another that would give victims a three-year window to file lawsuits concerning sexual abuse that occurred beyond the current statute of limitations.

California enacted a law giving victims one year to file lawsuits about abuse regardless of when it occurred, opening up dioceses there to potentially devastating liability.

Last week at the Capitol, Catholic leaders lobbying lawmakers voiced support for making clergy mandated reporters but not for altering the statute of limitations.

Meanwhile, the Albany Diocese will have to handle each current claim one by one.

A Boston attorney, Bernard Guekguezian, said he expects to begin negotiations with the Albany Diocese in April. He has demanded a $2 million settlement from the church and threatened to file a lawsuit on behalf of a client allegedly abused by the Rev. Dozia Wilson, an Albany diocesan priest.

Attorney John Aretakis said he has more than three dozen clients lining up to talk to the church about a possible settlement. Oathout is one of his clients.

David, the Saratoga man who does not yet have an attorney, said he has spoken to several lawyers and will likely sign a retainer agreement this spring.

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