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Abuse Case Against NJ Diocese Is to Proceed

By ROBERT HANLEY - The New York Times
November 4, 2004

MORRISTOWN, N.J., Nov. 3 - A sexual abuse lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, its former bishop and several churches and schools cleared a legal hurdle Wednesday when a New Jersey judge rejected a diocesan motion to dismiss the suit.

The judge, Deanne Wilson, of New Jersey Superior Court, rejected arguments by a lawyer for the diocese that under the statutes of limitation, the filing deadline for the suit lapsed years ago. Judge Wilson's ruling allowed the lawsuit brought by 25 men and six of their wives to proceed. They are seeking unspecified financial damages and nonmonetary relief from the diocese.

The Paterson Diocese's decision to fight the lawsuit, which charges negligence in the abuse of young boys, comes after other Catholic dioceses in New Jersey and elsewhere have settled sex abuse lawsuits brought by former altar boys and other victims. In early October, the Archdiocese of Newark paid $1.1 million to seven men and two woman who said they had been sexually abused as children by nine priests.

In October 2003, the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., announced an agreement to pay $21 million to 40 people who contended they were abused by priests. Several months before that, the Diocese of Camden in southern New Jersey paid $880,000 to resolve 23 abuse claims.

Since 1950, the Paterson Diocese has paid about $2.8 million in settlements, legal fees, therapy and counseling related to sexual abuse by priests, the most recent last December, said Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the diocese. Ms. Thompson declined to give details on why the diocese is fighting the latest suit in court.

"These cases were assessed, and it was decided to go through the judicial process,'' Ms. Thompson said. "We believe this is the best course we can follow.''

Supporters of those who brought the suit were critical Wednesday of the new bishop of the Paterson diocese, Arthur J. Serratelli. When he was installed last July, Bishop Sarratelli pledged renewed efforts "to safeguard our young, to protect them from insidious evil that would rob them of their innocence and scar them for life."

Mark Serrano, a past victim of abuse in the Paterson Diocese, expressed disappointment Wednesday that Bishop Serratelli had ignored invitations to meet with members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group.

"The victims are not receiving fair and just treatment from the bishop,'' Mr. Serrano said.

Gregory Gianforcaro, the lawyer for the 25 men, said 20 of them had been abused as children by a former priest in the diocese, James T. Hanley. (Mr. Hanley is not related to the reporter of this article.)

The suit does not name Mr. Hanley as a defendant, in part because he has no assets and is helping those who filed the suit, Mr. Gianforcaro said. He said Mr. Hanley had provided a statement about his abusive behavior.

The lawsuit also accused five other priests and a deacon of sexual abuse of children between 1956 and 1983.

During court arguments Wednesday, a diocesan lawyer, Kenneth Mullaney, contended the lawsuit had been filed long after the deadline on various charges had passed.

Most negligence lawsuits filed on behalf of juveniles must be filed in New Jersey no later than two years after the juvenile reaches age 18, Mr. Mullaney said.

Mr. Gianforcaro argued that the state's traditional statutes of limitation did not pertain in this case because state law dealing with sexual abuse of minors allows victims to argue that the abuse led to repressed memories or psychological scars that lasted for years.

In her ruling, Judge Wilson sided with Mr. Gianforcaro and allowed him to present, in future hearings, psychological reports supporting his claim that his clients suffered from repressed memories and other emotional problems.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests