Court rejects sex abuse suit against priest

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/February 25, 2011

Springfield, Illinois - The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday threw out a lawsuit from a former student who claims he was sexually abused by Belleville-area priest Kenneth Roberts 25 years ago, saying the plaintiff waited too long to file the suit after confronting his memories.

The decision leaves intact a 2003 state law that allows a plaintiff five years to file suit after discovering emotional injuries from previous abuse, through recovered memories or other events. But the court found that St. Louis County firefighter Christopher Amenn, of O'Fallon, Ill., wasn't entitled to that five-year window, because his discovery of the effects of the alleged abuse came before the 2003 law was in effect.

"I'm disappointed. Not for myself, but for the children," Amenn told the Post-Dispatch Thursday. "They're taking a step backward ... allowing predators to hide behind a statute of limitations."

Amenn's Minnesota-based attorney, Jeff Anderson, called the court's ruling "offensive and wrongheaded" but said he doesn't see an immediate likelihood of appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "It may be the end of the road" for Amenn's case, Anderson said.

The defendants included the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the dioceses of Belleville and Dallas, all of which have had some connection to Roberts.

"We regard (the Illinois decision) as a just interpretation of the statute of limitations," said Bernard Huger, attorney for the St. Louis Archdiocese. "It is a correct decision."

Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton said in an e-mailed statement: "The Diocese of Belleville continues to express regret for any instance of sexual abuse of a minor by a member of its clergy."

The statement says the diocese "is committed to adhering to its Child Protection Policy, and will continue to assist victims and their families in furtherance of that policy and its ministry."

Roberts was ordained as a priest in the 1960s in Dallas. He was the author, in the 1970s, of the book "From Playboy to Priest." He kept an apartment in St. Louis County while traveling the country promoting his book and lecturing.

In 1984, Roberts spent a week at St. Mary's Catholic School in Belleville. Amenn, then 13, was familiar with Roberts' writings and approached him for advice about joining the priesthood. Amenn's suit claims Roberts abused him hours later when the two met privately.

Amenn said he didn't completely forget the abuse, but repressed the memories and didn't understand their impact on his life until he was hospitalized for depression in 1998.

"It's made me a lot more guarded ... (and) it's affected my faith," said Amenn. "I'd had a lot invested in the church."

In 1994, the state Legislature passed a law allowing abuse victims up to two years to sue after discovery that "the act of childhood abuse occurred and that the injury was caused by the childhood sexual abuse."

In 2003, the Legislature changed the law to extend that window to five years. Amenn, who was within that five-year window in 2003, filed suit in Belleville that year.

But the state high court, in throwing out the suit Thursday without dissent, said Amenn wasn't entitled to that five-year window because he began recovering his memory before that 2003 law was in effect.

"The central issue is whether ... the 2003 (law) applies retroactively" to people whose memory-recovery began before 2003, Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote for the court. The ruling ultimately concluded that it doesn't.

The St. Louis Archdiocese revoked Roberts' permission to work as a priest here in 1994, following two complaints of sexual misconduct alleged to have occurred 15 years before. Roberts retired in 1999.

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