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Juries, not technicalities, are way to settle abuse cases

By Donald P. Russo
The Morning Call - Allentown, PA
November 6, 2004

In a one-sentence order, the state Superior Court indicated last month that it will not entertain arguments regarding a decision handed down in June by the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County in certain sexual abuse cases filed against the Catholic Diocese of Allentown. A panel of three Lehigh County Judges held that sexual abuse suits against the Diocese could proceed, notwithstanding that they had been filed after the expiration of the two year statute of limitations for personal injury actions. Overall, the issue remains unresolved; however, the recent action of the Superior Court regarding the Lehigh County sexual abuse cases does not augur well for the Catholic Church's ability to use statute of limitations arguments to ward off sexual abuse suits.

Doctrines of equity are used to abrogate statute of limitations defenses in certain situations. Equity can be used by a court to refine the hard edges of the law if the application of a legal principle might have an overly harsh and unwarranted effect. It doesn't happen often, but it might now be happening in the Lehigh County sex abuse cases.

Generally, the statute of limitations meter begins running when the wrongdoing occurs. Once the two-year period has expired, the party is barred from bringing suit unless it is established that an exception to the general rule applies, which acts to extend, or ''toll'', the running of the statute. The ''discovery rule'' is such an exception to the statute of limitations. The discovery rule arises from the inability of the injured, despite the exercise of due diligence, to know about his injury or its cause. However, where through fraud or concealment, a defendant causes the plaintiff to relax his vigilance or deviate from his right of inquiry, the defendant is precluded from invoking the statute of limitations.

What must be determined is whether the Catholic Church's hierarchy actively concealed information and knowledge that it may have had pertaining to the harboring of priests who, the plaintiffs have alleged, were pedophiles. If this information was withheld from victims, it may have deflected them from investigating, thereby causing the victims to overlook their legal rights.

The implications for a church that champions itself as a defender of ''life'' are severe. If the plaintiffs' allegations are found to be true, and of course we do not yet know that, then it can be said that the destruction of a young person's life by a trusted clergyman with the complicity of the hierarchy in concealing that clergyman's actions is an abomination crying out for punishment. Such punishment should be handed down in the temporal world, the only world I am capable of knowing anything about at the moment. (Something tells me, nonetheless, that the real punishment to be meted out to anyone who destroys the fiber of a young person's being is reserved for another realm, at another time.)

The sanctity of life applies not only to those who are still in the womb, but also to those who have already exited nature's most protective locale. The Catholic Church's spiritual leaders emphasize the sanctity of human life; therefore we should not countenance their legalistic distinctions created in the interests of limiting liability. Surely they realize that child abuse destroys the human soul. This issue needs to be addressed, not concealed.

In order to be consistent with its pro-life position, the Catholic Church must find a way to remedy the damage that has been inflicted on unsuspecting children throughout this nation by errant members of the clergy. The Church must care not only about the unborn, but also those who have already been born and are being subjected to injustice in its many forms. Sister Joan Chittister, in a recent column in The National Catholic Reporter, described the pro-life imperative as follows: ''Most of all, the smokescreen called 'pro-life' is being used to confuse the real life issues of war and peace, health care and sickness, jobs and welfare, debt and pensions, stability and poverty, education and unemployment. After all, it's easy to be 'pro-life' when all you have to do is to talk about the unborn. It doesn't cost a penny.''

It might cost the Diocese some money to do the right thing, but that's a lot better than trying to hide behind the statute of limitations in the hope that these victims will never have their day in court due to a procedural bar. And, at the end of the day, if the allegations against the church are untrue, then the best way to bring the truth to light is to have these cases tried before a jury — not thrown out on a technicality.


Donald P. Russo is an attorney in Bethlehem. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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