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Abuse cases to move ahead

| Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

Nearly two dozen adults who claim they were molested as children by priests won an early round in Allegheny County Court when a judge ruled Tuesday that their lawsuits can proceed against the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and its leaders.

Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. rejected the church's claim that the lawsuits should be thrown out because they weren't filed within the time allowed for such claims, called the statute of limitations. Wettick's ruling means the lawsuits can proceed to a fact-finding period called discovery.

Ruling in a test case that applies to all claims, Wettick wrote: "A jury may find that there is a loud ring of truth to plaintiff's statement that he and his family never approached Diocesan officials to ask whether they had knowingly assigned to their church, to work directly with the parishioners including young boys, a priest with a history of sexually molesting children, because it would never cross their minds that the church would do so."

Wettick's ruling was on preliminary legal issues and not on whether the abuse occurred. Nor did he rule on any action by church leaders. A jury could still decide that the statute of limitations applies.

The lawsuits allege that the diocese engaged in a conspiracy to shield priests accused of abuse by shuffling them to different assignments. The lawsuits maintain that the plaintiffs knew nothing of this until a nationwide priest sex abuse scandal made headlines in 2002.

Wettick ruled that a jury, not a judge, will determine whether and when a reasonable person should have suspected the leaders took such steps.

"Obviously, our clients are extremely pleased with the judge's decision," said Alan H. Perer, a Downtown attorney who filed the lawsuits with attorney Richard M. Serbin, of Altoona.

"I think it will be hard to prove what the leaders knew, but we knew that from the beginning," Perer said.

As leader of the six-county diocese's 815,000 Catholics, Bishop Donald Wuerl has built a national reputation for not tolerating predator priests. Pittsburgh Diocese spokesman Rev. Ronald Lengwin said the diocese has no plans to settle the cases because the lawsuits are factually wrong and because of Wuerl's no-tolerance stance.

"We just believe these have been charges made against us irresponsibly, and we want to defend our good name," Lengwin said.

Diocese lawyers had argued that the purported victims had a legal duty to determine years ago whether church officials knowingly shielded predator priests and allowed them access to children. The lawsuits have been brought against the diocese, Wuerl and Wuerl's predecessor, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who recently retired as archbishop of Philadelphia.

The diocese issued a statement yesterday saying church leaders would have preferred the cases end now, but look forward to presenting their side of the story.

"Judge Wettick's decision now requires (plaintiffs') attorneys Richard Serbin and Alan Perer to deal with the actual facts of their unfounded charges rather than simply generating media spin and a public relations campaign," the statement said.

Wettick's ruling applies to 23 plaintiffs.

Fourteen priests have been named as abusing the plaintiffs. Some of the priests died years ago with no accusations made against them during their lifetimes. Some priests resigned or left the ministry before the lawsuits were filed.

The test case involves Chris Matthews, 26, of West Mifflin, who accuses the Rev. John Wellinger of molesting him three times in 1989. As with the other cases, Serbin and Perer acknowledge the state's two-year statute of limitations for suing Wellinger has expired. Instead, the lawyers are suing the church, claiming Matthews and the other plaintiffs discovered the alleged conspiracy in 2002.

The Altoona Catholic Diocese recently settled a similar lawsuit filed by Serbin for $3.7 million after a judge declined to dismiss the claim on statute of limitations grounds.

Lengwin said the Matthews lawsuit falsely claims Wellinger remained a practicing priest after he was accused of abuse in 1995. Wellinger took a leave of absence from the ministry three months before the 1995 allegation surfaced, Lengwin said, and never returned.

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