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Suit Calls Church Process Daunting

Jan 15, 2003 | Albany Times Union Four people who say they were victims of sexual abuse by priests lodged a lawsuit against the Albany Diocese on Tuesday, accusing the church of setting up an intimidating process for reporting abuse.

The lawsuit, filed by three women and one man who did not disclose their names, does not seek money and names no priests. Instead, it asks a state judge to force the church to overhaul the way it asks victims to come forward and report sexual abuse by clergy.

Specifically, the victims said meeting with church leaders at the diocesan pastoral center on North Main Street -- with crucifixes, portraits of priests and other church artifacts on display -- is traumatic and can trigger flashbacks to incidents of abuse that happened between 10 and 20 years ago.

"It just made me sick to my stomach being there," recalled one of the women who said a priest raped her repeatedly in Albany more than 20 years ago. The woman, named in the suit as Jane Doe, spoke at a meeting with reporters arranged by her attorney, John Aretakis.

The case stems from a Jan. 3 meeting at the pastoral center, when Aretakis accompanied the three women to meet with church officials to lodge formal complaints that they had been sexually abused. The three women found the experience disturbing, and one has spent the past week in a residential psychiatric facility, Aretakis said. The man named as John Doe in court papers has refused to meet with church officials until the location is changed.

Aretakis said he mailed the diocese a letter on Monday protesting the meetings at the pastoral center. On Tuesday, he filed the lawsuit and announced it publicly. Church officials said Aretakis never discussed his concerns about the meeting place.

The officials called the lawsuit "fictitious and fundamentally frivolous." The Rev. Kenneth Doyle, a church spokesman, said: "This is quite patently another desperate attempt by Mr. Aretakis to create a cause of action when he has none."

For several years, Aretakis has specialized in cases involving sexual abuse by clergymen. He and the church's attorney, Michael Costello, are scheduled to appear in court this afternoon WED state Supreme Court Justice Bernard J. Malone.

Before the church can formally investigate a complaint, remove a priest or provide counseling, it asks alleged victims to meet with church lawyers or a newly hired victim's intake coordinator, Teresa Rodrigues.

Between August and November, Aretakis said, he brought about 20 victims forward to lodge complaints in meetings at Costello's law office in downtown Albany. In November when Rodrigues was hired, the meetings were moved to the pastoral center, Aretakis said.

Asking victims to come to the pastoral center was "negligent, careless, insensitive," according to the lawsuit.

The church "has used the process of a victim initiating a complaint of clergy sexual abuse for their own ulterior motive and self-interest," the suit contends.

The lawsuit seeks to require the church to tell victims who, if anyone, will also be told details of cases. A lawsuit filed last month alleged that a church counselor, Anne Bryan Smollin, asked a victim to sign a confidentiality waiver so she could discuss his case with Bishop Howard Hubbard.

Michael Hutter, an Albany Law School professor, said the case touches on sensitive issues regarding the separation of church and state.

"Courts usually draw the line and say these are internal disputes," Hutter said. "If they get involved this time it's going to be difficult for them not to get involved subsequent times."

In June, the Albany diocese removed six priests from active ministry because they were known to have sexually abused at least one child during the past 25 years. A seventh, semi-retired priest, was removed from his Otsego County post this weekend.

Officials said the church is looking into allegations against several other priests.

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