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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 were abused.

"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 him.

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 him insane.

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 time."

"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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests