Legal rulings favor plaintiffs in church sex-abuse lawsuits

Associated Press/June 28, 2004

Philadelphia -- A statute of limitations many legal experts had expected would protect the Roman Catholic Church from lawsuits by people abused decades ago by priests is looking like less of a shield after a series of recent court decisions.

Employing an unusual legal strategy, lawyers for alleged abuse victims have sought to skirt Pennsylvania's two-year time limit on personal injury lawsuits by claiming the church engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to conceal sexual abuse against minors.

The extent of the cover up, the suits claim, did not become apparent until 2002, when a firestorm of publicity over the church's role in protecting abusive priests prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly acknowledge the problem for the first time.

A three-judge panel in Lehigh County gave a preliminary nod to that strategy last week when it refused to throw out six lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Allentown by people who claimed to have been molested by priests between 1965 and 1982.

The ruling followed a similar decision by a Westmoreland County judge that cleared the way for a lawsuit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

A judge is expected to take up the same issue on July 8 in a group of 15 lawsuits filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Just as in Allentown and Altoona-Johnstown, attorneys for the Philadelphia archdiocese have asked that all of the suits be dismissed on the grounds that victims waited too long to sue.

The Philadelphia judge isn't bound by decisions in other counties, but attorney Kenneth Millman, who is part of the legal team representing victims in suits against all three dioceses, said he expects those other opinions to be influential.

"This was a tremendous victory for us. We think it will help set a standard for how these cases are conducted," Millman said.

The rulings on whether the statute of limitations applies are not final.

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