Abuse-Lawsuit Deadline Likely near
The One-Year Anniversary of the First Story Could Mark the Statute of Limitations for Filing Suit against the Archdiocese

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
Downloaded April 6, 2003

A legal window may be closing in the next two weeks for further lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Louisville alleging past sexual abuse by priests or others connected with the Catholic Church.

April 19 will mark one year since the first of 224 lawsuits was filed against the archdiocese, charging it knew of abuse and covered it up. Most of the lawsuits cite a story published April 14 in The Courier-Journal as the first indication they had of such a cover-up.

Lawyers for the archdiocese, which denies the charges of a cover-up, and for plaintiffs in the existing suits said April 14 -- or April 19 at the latest -- is likely the deadline for any additional suits under Kentucky's statute of limitations. The law would make it harder to file an old abuse case after that, the attorneys said.

The archdiocese has argued that even most of the existing lawsuits should be barred because the statute of limitations says victims can only sue over abuse within one year of turning 18.

Plaintiffs, however, argue that the statute of limitations was invalidated before last April because they allege the church covered up abuse by priests and other church workers. Plaintiffs' lawsuits cite The C-J's first story on child sexual abuse, about allegations against the Rev. Louis E. Miller, on April 14 as the first public indication of an alleged cover-up.

The church has not yet filed formal motions for a judge to rule on, but even plaintiffs' lawyers acknowledge they will have a harder time arguing any cases filed after mid-April.

"It is often difficult to determine when the statute of limitations will run in any case," said Louisville attorney William McMurry, who represents most of the plaintiffs. "After the 19th of April, there will be yet another argument that the archdiocese can make that the statute of limitations has run on all child-sexual-abuse cases involving those who are already 19 or over."

Attorney J. Andrew White, who represents six clients suing over alleged sexual abuse by former parochial-school teacher Gary Kazmarek three decades ago, said he has spoken with other potential plaintiffs who are unsure whether they want to sue. He has told them April 19 could be the deadline.

"If you can more than comply with a filing deadline, so much the better," he said. "I think it gets a little weaker (after a year in which) there were articles in the paper every other day. It gets harder and harder to say you didn't know there was a pattern of abuse."

Attorney Edward Stopher, representing the archdiocese, said the church contends that even many of the suits filed over the past year should be barred under the statute of limitations but that the argument would be strengthened after midApril.

"I think our position is that these cases have many different and legal and factual bases for the defense of the statute of limitations, and it would be part of our argument that anything filed after that date would most certainly be barred."

But Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer of the archdiocese, said the church still wants to hear from people who say they were abused by a priest or church employee. He said the church is prepared to enter into mediation for settlements, as it already has with five plaintiffs who filed lawsuits.

"Regardless of whether a person can legally file, we want people to talk with us, we want to help them, we want to help them move toward healing," he said. "That invitation is open regardless of the statute of limitations. If this date change encourages them to come directly to us, I prefer that."

University of Louisville law professor Samuel Marcosson said lawyers are correct to pay attention to the deadline.

"If I were an attorney representing someone contemplating a lawsuit, I would be operating under the assumption that the clock is running and will run out," said Marcosson, an associate professor at the Brandeis School of Law.

While lawyers can find other arguments for suspending the statutes of limitations, the claim of cover-up would no longer be a "plausible explanation" a year after mid-April, he said.

In their lawsuits alleging abuse as far back as five decades, the plaintiffs are arguing that the statute of limitations shouldn't count because the public didn't know until April 14, 2002, of evidence that the church allegedly was covering up abuse by Miller and other priests and lay people. The lawsuits cite The C-J's articles, beginning April 14, as evidence.

That first article cited testimony from a sister-in-law of Miller in a previously unpublicized lawsuit filed by Miller's niece in 1999, alleging sexual abuse by the priest. The testimony indicated Miller had been removed from two parishes after facing accusations of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s.

Miller, who pleaded guilty Monday to 50 counts of abuse-related criminal charges, is accused in more than a third of the lawsuits against the archdiocese. In therapeutic journals obtained by The C-J earlier this year, Miller acknowledged leaving four parish assignments amid accusations.

Plaintiffs are banking on a 1998 Kentucky Court of Appeals case that waived the statute of limitations after learning that the Covington Diocese had concealed evidence about an abusive priest.

McMurry said he is not aware of any alleged victims who are still undecided about whether to sue, but added, "It is important for anyone contemplating coming forward and breaking the silence to do so before April 19th."

Earlier this year, the Kentucky Senate considered legislation that would remove statutes of limitations on lawsuits involving child sexual abuse. The Senate did not vote on the bill before ending its session. Supporters hope the bill will be refiled.

Not all current lawsuits depend on waiving the statute of limitations. For example, one of the lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by the Rev. Daniel C. Clark was filed on behalf of two children who allege the abuse happened as recently as last year, within the statute of limitations.

White also has named Kazmarek as a defendant in his lawsuits, in addition to the archdiocese, contending that Kazmarek does not benefit from the statute of limitations because he has lived out of state for much of the past three decades.

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