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State's highest court hears arguments in clergy abuse cases

Jan 3, 2006 | AP The state's highest court heard arguments Tuesday involving sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests to determine whether the victims in those cases waited too long to seek damages under state law.

A ruling in favor of the victims could force dioceses across the state to face numerous suits that were dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

Nationwide, "hundreds and hundreds" of cases have been dismissed for the same reasons and many more never get filed, said David Clohessy, National Director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests also known as SNAP a national support group for clergy abuse victims.

In one case before the Court of Appeals, John Zumpano argues the abuse he suffered while in parochial school in Utica from 1963 to 1970 rendered him mentally incapable of bringing a suit before time ran out to do so. His lawyer, Frank Policelli, argued the church also tried to conceal the priest's wrongdoing to delay or prevent legal action and dissuaded legal action by its control over him.

Zumpano's civil lawsuit against the Rev. James Quinn, filed in May 2003, was dismissed by a state Supreme Court judge who ruled that state law limits to 10 years any extension of the time to file a suit due to insanity. That decision was upheld by a state appellate court. All applicable statutes of limitations in the case expired in 1976.

Quinn has denied the allegations and the Syracuse Diocese said its own investigation found insufficient evidence to document the accusations against him.

Mark Shulte, the lawyer for the Syracuse diocese, argued that a person suing the church would have to show how he was prevented from filing suit to get his case to trial now. He said Zumpano made no allegations of any deceit by anyone within the diocese besides Quinn.

"It's the plaintiff's requirement to come before the court and explain how he was induced by fraud, misrepresentation or deception to refrain from filing the complaint sooner," he said. "Otherwise you have these 33-year-old claims that are essentially defense proof. We have no ability to raise the witnesses to go back and recreate the interactions between Mr. Zumpano and diocese officials."

In the second case, 42 people contend they were abused by 13 priests in the Brooklyn Diocese between 1960 and 1985 when they were children. They filed suit in October 2002.

The case was dismissed by a Supreme Court judge who ruled the plaintiffs failed to show due diligence because they didn't pursue their claims for years despite personal knowledge of the abuse. That decision was also upheld by an appellate court.

The plaintiffs argue the diocese should be prevented from raising the statute of limitations defense because they say it refused to report abuse complaints to authorities, transferred accused priests to new parishes, paid off some who complained of abuse, and did other things to hide the abuse until the statute of limitations expired.

Michael Dowd, the lawyer for the alleged victims, said his clients delayed filing their suit because before 2003 and the scandal in the Boston Diocese, "It was unimaginable to my clients that the diocese, the bishop and other higher-ups would engage in such a scheme.

"We allege a 50-year scheme, conspiracy by the diocese to cover up and conceal sexual abuse that was occurring," he said. "We allege his scheme was for the purpose of evading the statute of limitations."

Countering that argument, Brooklyn diocese attorney Joseph Farrell said statutes of limitation are put in place to provide fairness to all sides as memories fade, records disappear and witnesses move or die over the years. He said the alleged victims could have easily acted earlier.

Under the law, the statute of limitations could be ignored only "if there was an out-and-out blatant fraud committed, which went over a period of time and was something that kept getting perpetrated for years and years and years," he said.

While the judges appeared willing to listen to the plaintiffs in both cases, they also expressed reservations about usurping the Legislature's power to write the laws.

"This would be a major erosion of the statute of limitations," Chief Judge Judith Kaye told Dowd.

Clohessy of SNAP says statute of limitation provisions stop many childhood victims from ever seeking justice or reparations.

"It is the most commonly used defense strategy by church officials and is inherently unjust," he said. "It arbitrarily freezes victims out of being able to use the justice system."

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