Former Camden priest's death complicates sex-abuse lawsuit

Courier-Post, New Jersey/September 26, 2013

By Jim Walsh

Camden -- A former priest at the center of an ongoing clergy sex-abuse lawsuit against the Camden diocese has died.

The death of Joseph Shannon, 87, was disclosed in a court filing in a lawsuit brought by Mark Bryson, a North Carolina man who claims he was molested by Shannon in a Camden church more than 40 years ago.

Shannon, removed from the ministry in 1990, was the subject of four sex-abuse complaints, according to a brief filed Monday by the diocese.

The brief — which challenges Bryson’s claim that he repressed memories of childhood assaults — contends the deaths of key figures in the case raise concerns about the fairness of any trial.

It also asks a judge to look harshly upon Bryson’s decision to destroy a 200-page journal he had compiled on a computer while undergoing therapy. The diocese contends the journal, which Bryson erased four months after hiring an attorney, “may have been the best and most objective evidence pertaining to his recollection of the alleged abuse.”

According to the diocese, Shannon died Sept. 19 after living under supervision for about 20 years at the Vianney Renewal Center, a Missouri facility for troubled priests. He was accused in at least three previous lawsuits of assaulting boys. Those suits alleged acts of wrongdoing in the 1960s and ’70s at one child’s Blackwood home, at a Long Beach Island vacation home and in a Camden rectory basement.

The diocese, which received its first complaint about Shannon in 1990, made payments to settle the suits but admitted no wrongdoing.

“I was looking forward to a vigorous cross-examination of Father Shannon, but unfortunately that will not take place,” said Adam Horowitz, an attorney for Bryson.

Bryson sued the diocese in January 2012, alleging he was repeatedly assaulted by Shannon at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden. Bryson, born in 1961, contends the abuse occurred when he was a first-grader at the parish school.

The diocese contends the statute of limitations for any offense expired when Bryson was 20, or two years after he became an adult. Bryson claims he only recalled the assaults in February 2010, when he saw someone resembling Shannon.

If U.S. District Court Judge Jerome Simandle upholds the repressed-memory claim, the statute of limitations would not block the suit, Horowitz said.

In a 130-page brief, diocesan attorney William DeSantis of Cherry Hill said the judge “should infer (that Bryson) deleted the journal “out of a well-founded fear that the contents would harm him.”

DeSantis noted Bryson deleted the journal “after he had signed authorizations for his medical records, so he knew that documents needed to be preserved.’’

Horowitz said Bryson deleted the journal “for his own mental health” after it became “a reminder of horrible memories.” He said the contents “were discussed in therapy, and my client’s therapist is familiar with what it said.”

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