13 sue archdiocese over abuse

The class-action suit says the Philadelphia Archdiocese violated conspiracy, racketeering laws. An expert called it a long shot.

Philadelphia Inquirer/June 16, 2006
By John Shiffman and Craig R. McCoy

People alleging abuse by Catholic priests mounted a new legal challenge against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia yesterday, alleging that the church cover-up violated federal conspiracy and racketeering laws.

Thirteen people - saying they represented all victims abused by priests in the diocese since 1940 - filed the class-action lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia.

The suit alleges the responsibility for the abuse lies at the top, naming Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and the late Cardinal John Krol as defendants.

"The archdiocese committed acts that are just as severe as those of the priests themselves," attorney Stewart J. Eisenberg said. "It's never too late to redress a wrong - particularly against children."

The lawyer for the archdiocese, C. Clark Hodgson Jr., said he had not yet read the lawsuit, which was filed late yesterday. He declined to comment. Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said she could not comment on pending litigation but urged people who think they might be victims of abuse to call the church's hotline, 888-800-8780.

The victims have largely been unsuccessful in state court because the allegations are too old. Eisenberg said he hoped to be more successful under federal conspiracy and racketeering laws.

The abuse may have happened decades ago, but Eisenberg said the case should go forward because a cover-up conspiracy "continues even to today."

Most of the priests named in the lawsuit had been previously identified as abusers.

However, the lawsuit identifies one priest whose name had not surfaced in the scandal: the Rev. David Hagan, a well-known priest who died last year. Hagan ministered in North Philadelphia and he was twice depicted in films, once by actor George Kennedy in a movie about basketball player Hank Gathers.

In the suit, brothers Thomas and Willie Magnum said they were routinely abused by Hagan for three years, beginning in 1977 or 1978. The abuse took place at Hagan's house, and on trips to the Jersey Shore, the suit claims.

"They were reluctant to come forward" because Hagan was so well-known, Eisenberg said.

Another plaintiff, David Porter, allegedly abused by a priest as a 13-year-old altar boy, said he complained to Bevilacqua about it but never got a response. Siblings Bill Henis and Joan McCrane said they had been abused by a priest on a weekly basis in the late 1960s.

James Spoerl cited abuse by the Rev. James Brzyski in the early 1980s, often weekly, and once, he said, while other priests watched.

Last year's Philadelphia grand-jury report on sexual abuse in the church termed Brzyski "one of the archdiocese's most brutal abusers" and said that by one account, he had molested more than 100 youngsters during the seven years he spent as a priest. The church formally defrocked him last year.

Law professor Marci A. Hamilton, an expert on the church scandal, said lawyers elsewhere in the nation had had little success using the federal racketeering and conspiracy laws to bring decades-old accusations into the courts.

"I think there is a fighting chance, but it's a long shot," Hamilton, of Cardozo Law School, said of yesterday's filing.

Hamilton said federal judges had been reluctant to extend a measure usually invoked against the mob and corrupt unions to the Catholic Church.

Yesterday's complaint includes few new allegations against the Catholic Church here.

Mostly, it cites the grand-jury report that excoriated the archdiocese and its former leaders, accusing them of concealing and facilitating the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

The 418-page report identified 63 priests who abused hundreds of children over several decades. In some cases, the report said, church leaders knew of and concealed the abuse, putting the church's reputation above the safety of children.

The grand jury said Krol and Bevilacqua had "excused and enabled the abuse" by protecting abusive priests and concealing their crimes from parishioners, the public, and law enforcement officials.

In its report, the grand jury lamented its inability to bring criminal charges and called for changes in state law to ease the statute of limitations and allow such cases to proceed.

The grand jury said its findings amounted to "a travesty of justice: a multitude of crimes for which no one can be held criminally accountable."

After the grand-jury report was released, victims and prosecutors began lobbying for a package of reforms in Harrisburg.

None has become law.

The most controversial proposal called for a one-year "window" to permit victims to sue, regardless of how long ago they were abused - relaxing the statute of limitations that has kept most lawsuits out of court. The church has lobbied hard against the proposal, saying it could spell "incalculable" financial damage to the church and other institutions.

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