Time has run out for abuse cases, diocesan lawyers say
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The first hearing in a lawsuit claiming that the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh conspired to protect priests against allegations of child sexual abuse focused not on whether a priest molested a child but on whether the cases are too old to try.
Allegheny Common Pleas Court Judge R. Stanton Wettick spent 23 minutes questioning attorneys for both sides. He will rule later.
The accusations concerning 14 priests and former priests are long past the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Which is why the suit is claiming a conspiracy on the part of the diocese.
To test their argument, attorneys for 25 plaintiffs chose the case of the former Rev. John Wellinger, who is accused of molesting 11-year-old Chris Matthews in 1989.
The Post-Gazette's policy is to withhold the names of victims of alleged sexual abuse, but Matthews, now 26, has given his permission to publish his name. He says the diocese broke a promise to his parents to "defrock" Wellinger. Diocesan officials say Bishop Donald Wuerl forbade Wellinger ever to dress, act or identify himself as a priest again.
Attorneys Richard Serbin and Alan Perer say their clients discovered only in 2002 that diocesan officials had conspired against them and that the two-year statute of limitations did not begin to run until then. An identical argument against the Diocese of Allentown was recently allowed to move forward in Lehigh County.
Joseph Selep, an attorney for the diocese, argued that Pennsylvania sets a high standard for anyone who claims to have discovered their injury after the statute of limitations expired.
Although the accusation against Wellinger does not involve any claim of "repressed memory," the fact that Pennsylvania does not allow repressed memory claims to override the statute of limitations means that accusers with good memories have even less excuse for not filing on time, he argued.
The fact that the Matthews family met with diocesan officials in 1996 shows that Matthews "elected not to file a lawsuit against the priest within the statute of limitations," Selep said.
According to Selep, the "fatal flaw" in the Lehigh County ruling is that Pennsylvania courts require plaintiffs to show "due diligence," which means they must look for evidence of a conspiracy before the statute of limitations expires.
For instance, he said, the family could have asked other parishioners whether Wellinger was ever reported to the diocese for molesting any other child. Because they didn't look for a diocesan cover-up then, it's too late to argue that they discovered it now, he said.
Wettick repeatedly questioned Selep about whether anyone could reasonably assume that Catholics in 1989 or 1995 would suspect their church of not being honest with them. Good Catholics might assume that their bishop was "weeding out" known molesters, Wettick suggested.
Wettick's questioning of Perer was shorter but equally pointed.
Perer argued that a diocese must "come forward and reveal a priest who is known to be a child molester."
"I'm not sure I found any cases that support that," Wettick replied.
Wettick told Perer that a preliminary ruling to allow the case to go forward does not mean that it won't be dismissed if he fails to make his case.
The diocese maintains that Wellinger's formal "dismissal from ministry" in 2003 was a paperwork technicality, and that he had been banned from ministry since 1995.
Matthews said that he had asked Rita Flaherty, the diocesan victim assistance coordinator, in spring 2002 if he could meet with Wuerl, but that nothing came of his request.
The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said that neither Matthews nor his parents had ever asked to meet with Wuerl.
"If such a request were made, Bishop Wuerl would have met with him as soon as possible because, during that same period of time, he met with other victims," Lengwin said.
"In November and December  Chris Matthews requested to meet with diocesan staff. Appointments were made. He did not show up, nor did he call to cancel. And we have not heard again from him since then."
First Published July 7, 2004 12:00 am