New York Court to Rule on Time Limits in Priest Sex-Abuse Suits
By ANDY NEWMAN - The New York Times
January 3, 2006
Several men say they were abused by Roman Catholic priests when
they were boys in the 1960's. They say they suffered profound psychological
damage as a result. In 2002, they learn from news accounts that
for years, senior church officials took elaborate steps to cover
up for sexually abusive priests. Appalled, they sue the church.
But under New York's statute of limitations, they are too late,
by several decades.
However, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, will
hear arguments today for the first time in cases seeking to allow
old claims like these against the church to proceed.
A ruling for the plaintiffs could open the door for dozens of suits
against the church that have been blocked by New York's statute
of limitations, one of the strictest in the nation. The statute
requires negligence suits against institutions to be filed within
three years, or before the plaintiff turns 21, whichever is later.
The two cases before the appeals court, against the Brooklyn and
Syracuse Dioceses, argue that church officials effectively prevented
the plaintiffs from learning of their role in protecting abusive
priests until after the statute of limitations had expired. Plaintiffs
in both cases cited a 1966 decision by the Court of Appeals, involving
a bookkeeper sued for stealing from her employer, that "a wrongdoer
should not be able to take refuge behind the shield of his own wrong."
Mark Furnish, the New York director of SNAP, the Survivors Network
of Those Abused by Priests, said that the appeals court's decision
will be crucial because most of the recent sexual abuse suits against
the church in New York, including the Brooklyn and Syracuse ones,
have been dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds. If they can
be reinstated, he said, the church would face the prospect of having
to open decades of internal records to plaintiffs who claim they
"If the Court of Appeals does rule in favor of the plaintiffs,"
he said, "you'll start to see the dioceses coming up with these
mass-settlement agreements." Such settlements in other states
have involved multimillion-dollar payments to groups of plaintiffs
that have brought some dioceses to the brink of bankruptcy.
If, on the other hand, the court rules for the church, Mr. Furnish
said, "these cases are pretty much dead in New York."
Mr. Furnish, who is also the legal counsel to State Senator Thomas
K. Duane, added: "It would take a legislative change in the
statue of limitations to make this issue come alive again."
The Assembly passed a bill last year to give sexual-abuse victims
a one-time, one-year window to sue on old claims. It lapsed without
Senate action, but is expected to be reintroduced in the Assembly
at this year's session. A similar one-year amnesty in California
led the Diocese of Orange to reach a $100 million settlement.
Many states give plaintiffs more leeway to sue than New York does.
Connecticut allows victims of child sexual abuse to sue until their
48th birthday. Massachusetts has a three-year statute of limitations
that starts only when the victim understands which parties harmed
The suit against the Brooklyn Diocese involves 42 plaintiffs and
13 priests who are accused of abusing them between 1960 and 1985.
One priest who is accused of sexually abusing 26 children was transferred
to four different parishes to keep parishioners from catching up
with him, the suit said. The Syracuse case was brought by a man
who claims that years of abuse by a priest in the 1960's rendered
At the heart of both cases are questions of trust and the obligations
that come with it. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that the church
owes the children entrusted to its care a special duty not just
to keep them from harm but also to actively warn them and their
families of danger.
By teaching that the authority of church officials "should
be accepted, trusted and relied on unquestioningly," the church
instilled in its young charges a reluctance to suspect its priests
and bishops of wrongdoing, wrote the lawyer for the Brooklyn plaintiffs,
Michael G. Dowd. This teaching, coupled with payments of hush money
to some families, denying the extent of priest sexual abuse and
transferring abusive priests, prevented the plaintiffs from understanding
the role of church leaders in the abuse until the scandals broke
in 2002, Mr. Dowd wrote.
The Brooklyn Diocese, in its brief, argued that the plaintiffs
had not cited any specific actions taken by the church after alleged
incidents of abuse that kept them from suing. It maintained that
the "wrongdoer" exception to the time limit does not apply.
The responsibility, the diocese argued, was on the alleged victims
of abuse to determine whom to sue and to do so in a timely fashion.
"Instead of exercising diligence," the diocese's lawyers
wrote, "plaintiffs tacitly admit they completely failed to
pursue their rights, in many cases, for decades." And, the
diocese's lawyers wrote, it is not for secular courts to determine
a church's obligations to its members.
Mr. Furnish said that the plaintiffs' arguments in the cases before
the appeals court seemed similar to those in many others that the
court had turned away, but that these cases "came at the right
"The Court of Appeals has decided to hear this issue because
it keeps coming up," he said.
Most similar cases in state appellate courts across the country
have upheld the church's right to invoke statutes of limitations.