Ruling restrains priest sex suitsCourt upholds 3-year statute of limitations on abuse filings
December 23, 2004
BY JIM SCHAEFER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
In a ruling that could stop lawsuits involving old allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in Michigan, a divided state Court of Appeals said Wednesday a man who claimed abuse in the 1970s cannot sue because he waited too long.
Lawyers for plaintiffs and victims' advocates decried the ruling, which they said puts Michigan behind states such as California, where legislative changes have allowed victims of decades of abuse by Catholic priests to file lawsuits.
The appeals court ruling upholds Michigan's statute of limitations, which requires victims in such cases to sue within three years of the abuse.
"What some judges don't understand is that many, many victims deny and minimize what happened and don't even understand they've been hurt," said David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"It's only after the fourth failed marriage and the fifth DUI and the sixth bar fight that we begin to understand those horrible childhood incidents still cause us suffering and self-destructive behavior."
In the case before the court, a man identified in documents only as John Doe sued the archdiocese in December 2002, claiming the Rev. Robert Burkholder had molested him for four years starting in 1972 when he was an altar boy at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Detroit. The man said Burkholder also abused him in 1983 in Hawaii.
Burkholder, who was called Michigan's worst pedophile priest by then-Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan in 2002, spent a month in jail in November of that year for abusing boys in the 1980s. He has admitted to church officials that he molested up to two dozen children. Burkholder, who is in his 80s, has been diagnosed with dementia and is living in an undisclosed nursing home in Michigan.
Lawyers for the alleged victim in the case before the appeals court argued that the lawsuit should not be barred by the statute of limitations because the archdiocese helped conceal Burkholder's offenses by transferring the priest to other parishes and preventing the abuse complaints from surfacing. The man said the church's actions years ago seemed to back up Burkholder's claim to him that their encounters were OK with the church and sanctioned by God.
John Doe said he became aware of the archdiocese's alleged role in covering up the abuse during a flurry of news reports in 2002. He argued that the church covered up the abuse so he should be exempt from the time limit.
The three-member appeals court panel disagreed in a split decision, with the majority two members ruling that John Doe's delay was more likely due to a reluctance to sue his mentors.
"This phenomenon appears less attributable to the church engaging in fraudulent concealment of widespread sexual abuse by priests than to a collective reluctance to initiate legal proceedings against an institution whose perceived role in society is one of spiritual and moral guidance," the judges wrote.
They also wrote that while they sympathize with the victims of clergy abuse, the law constrained their decision.
Judges Mark Cavanagh and Kirsten Frank Kelly signed the opinion. The third judge, Harold Hood, dissented, writing it was too early to dismiss the case and that the lawsuit should proceed to determine whether the plaintiff could prove his claim against the church.
Detroit archdiocesan spokesman Ned McGrath said there are five similar lawsuits pending against the church. "We think this ruling will have a binding impact on all the cases involved," he said Wednesday.
"I'm afraid so," said Allan Falk, an Okemos attorney who argued the John Doe case before the appeals court. "I think this ruling is a tragedy. ... In effect, this tells anyone engaged in wrongdoing, 'If you can keep it under the carpet long enough, you'll never be called to account for it.' "
Falk said he would like to appeal. Southfield lawyer Justin Ravitz, who has two of the pending cases, said he will fight to keep his cases moving.
The appeals judges "got it wrong and are out of touch and out of tune with the realities of this case and with what is going on nationally," Ravitz said. "More and more states are looking at what happened for decades under the cloak of secrecy and saying this is wrong."
The ruling seriously undermines any leverage victims groups have to extract large settlements from the archdiocese, as they have in other places.
This month in California, where the Legislature suspended the statute of limitations temporarily in 2002, the diocese in Orange County agreed to pay a reported $100 million to 87 victims. In 2003, Boston archdiocesan officials agreed to pay $85 million to victims.
Detroit church officials have reported that the archdiocese has paid $1.4 million to victims in settlements and counseling.
McGrath said the archdiocese was satisfied.
"Our state and its citizens have been well served by the statute of limitations; it provides a reasonable amount of time for individuals to pursue civil complaints."
McGrath said the ruling will not affect the church's assistance programs for victims, no matter how old the abuse.
"The archdiocese is willing to provide -- and is currently providing -- assistance to those who have been victims of clerical sexual abuse. http://www.freep.com/news/religion/cath23e_20041223.htm
Well, that concludes any thoughts I was having on bringing suit against one of my abusers. Even with his confession to police. Statutes of Limitations got him off legal prosecution for my abuse and Statutes of Limitations take care of any civil suit. Oh well, one less thing to ponder.