Diocese to fight sex abuse claim

Suit alleges negligence, seeks time for cases

Concord Monitor/March 7, 2009

A lawyer who has represented dozens of victims of clergy abuse has sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, claiming that church officials were negligent in failing to protect his client from sexual assault by a priest.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Peter Hutchins of Manchester, also seeks to extend the timeline for victims of past abuse to come forward and seek financial damages from the diocese. If a judge allows the suit to proceed, it will be the first time the diocese has been sued for negligence since it signed a landmark agreement with the state in 2002 in which church leaders acknowledged they failed to protect children from abusive priests for decades.

Hutchins has settled more than 100 claims of clergy sexual abuse in the past six years. He said he filed this lawsuit because diocese officials don't believe his client's claims of abuse and refused to offer a financial settlement. The alleged victim, a 42-year-old inmate at the state prison in Concord, is named in the lawsuit as John Doe. Hutchins said he is seeking to shield his client's identity because he could be harmed in prison if his allegations of sexual abuse were known to other inmates.

Hutchins said his client was 11 years old when he was abused by a priest at St. Martin's in Somersworth in 1978. Hutchins does not name the priest in the lawsuit, referring to him as "Father M." The suit claims that Father M. forced John Doe to perform oral sex on him and raped the boy. The suit says the abuse caused John Doe to abuse drugs and consider suicide, and led him to a life of crime. Hutchins would not say why his client is in prison.

John Doe told the Somersworth police of his abuse allegations in January 2008, the suit claims, but since the abuse is alleged to have taken place 30 years ago, it was too late to pursue prosecution under New Hampshire's statute of limitations. Hutchins's lawsuit claims that diocesan officials were negligent in not protecting his client from abuse at the hands of Father M. He is seeking a financial award.

In an e-mailed statement, Kevin Donovan, a spokesman for the diocese, said church officials investigated the man's claim and determined that his story was untrue.

The statement continues: "The elderly priest referenced in this suit is retired from active ministry and vigorously denies that the alleged incidents ever occurred. The priest remains in good standing with no restrictions placed on his ministry. The bishop and the diocese are in full support of the priest and regret he has to undergo this process. . . . The diocese has settled over 100 complaints brought by this attorney on behalf of his clients, but this complaint stands apart from the others. The diocese regrets it will have to resolve it in a court of law."

Hutchins's lawsuit centers on his belief that the opportunity for victims of clergy abuse to file civil claims against the diocese expired Tuesday. That date was exactly six years after the New Hampshire attorney general's office released a report detailing efforts by church officials to cover up clergy sexual abuse. New Hampshire law allows victims who were abused as children three years to file civil lawsuits from the date they learned of another party's negligence allowing their abuse to happen. But Hutchins cited a federal court ruling in which that timeframe was extended to six years for cases in which the abuse occurred before 1986, the year state law was changed to shorten the statute of limitations.

Hutchins said he filed his lawsuit as a class action suit for two reasons. First, he is representing other alleged victims of clergy abuse who are waiting to settle their cases with the diocese, and he feared those clients would be denied a chance at financial damages if the statute of limitations expires.

"These cases haven't been settled yet, and the indication is that we are going to attempt settlement, but to be safe, I thought this would protect their legal rights," Hutchins said.

Second, Hutchins said he suspects that many victims of clergy abuse have not yet sought legal recourse.

"Most people who have not come forward yet probably do not know of this potential statute of limitations date," Hutchins said. "This (lawsuit) protects them. I've been representing a lot of these people for a good number of years now, and I almost feel an obligation to those who haven't been able to come forward yet."

Hutchins said he has worked out an informal process with the diocese for settling abuse claims, working directly with diocesan officials without a third-party mediator. He said he has offered to spread out the payments over a period of time, delaying the diocese's payments for up to a year. He said his lawsuit may legally formalize those proceedings, as has occurred in other states where clergy sexual abuse has led to numerous lawsuits.

The Diocese of Manchester has sought to improve its procedures for preventing child sexual abuse since 2002. The diocese has also submitted to a series of annual audits by the state attorney general's office, a requirement of the 2002 agreement that allowed church officials to avoid criminal prosecution for failing to protect children.

In response to a right-to-know request from the Monitor, the attorney general's office this week released hundreds of documents related to abuse claims that were first reported after the 2002 agreement between the state and the diocese. The documents list 90 allegations of clergy sexual abuse against children.

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