Sex abuse may be far in past, but those hurt still want to sue

Sarah Duran; The News Tribune

The Rev. James McGreal made headlines in 1988 when the Archdiocese of Seattle admitted he had a history of pedophilia stretching back almost 40 years.

What might have seemed forgotten history is news again, 14 years later.

Fifteen men have filed civil suits in the past two months against the archdiocese, alleging McGreal molested them in the 1960s and 1970s at parishes in Olympia, Renton and Seattle. The most recent lawsuit was filed Wednesday on behalf of eight men.

The archdiocese has declined comment on the suits.

The accusations are too old for the seven-year statute of limitations for criminal acts. Victims still can seek to hold priests and the church accountable by filing civil lawsuits, but civil suits have an even shorter statute of limitations - three years.

To win in court, victims must show that even though the abuse happened years ago, they began to realize the extent of their harm or the church's culpability within the last three years.

The victim and the church are likely to disagree over when that three-year clock started ticking.

The church's lawyer, Michael Patterson of Seattle, said he didn't know enough about the current lawsuits to say whether the claims are too old to be litigated.

But if it is appropriate, he said he is prepared to raise the issue.

"We shouldn't be prohibited from using what legal defenses the law has given us," he said.

It's an easy way to fight these suits, said James Bendell, a Port Angeles lawyer who sued the church in the mid-1990s over sexual abuse by McGreal and a second priest.

"This is one where you don't need 48 hours of research in the law library," Bendell said. "It just cries out for them to use it."

Jay, a Snohomish County resident who said he was sexually abused by a priest in 1977, said he hopes the lawsuits succeed because they would hold the church accountable. His case is time-barred because he went through counseling in the mid-1990s.

"I don't think there should be a statute of limitations when it comes to kids," said Jay, who asked that his last name not be used. "I had no idea until my 30s of how it impacted me."

Seven suits are pending against the Seattle archdiocese over allegations of sexual abuse by clergy from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. They name the Revs. McGreal, John Cornelius and Jack Marsh, and a fourth priest whom The News Tribune is not naming because the church has not completed its review of the allegations.

The lawsuits do not seek specific damages.

McGreal, Cornelius and Marsh no longer serve as priests. The fourth, most recently assigned to a Pierce County parish, is on paid administrative leave.

Archdiocese officials say they want victims to come forward, no matter how long ago the abuse took place. The church has offered counseling in the past to some victims.

"The pastoral care of victims is our No. 1 concern," said archdiocesan spokesman Bill Gallant.

There is no statute of limitations on pastoral care, including an apology and counseling. Lawsuits are a different matter.

Two principles generally affect older claims - a 1988 Washington statute regulating when victims of childhood sexual abuse can file lawsuits, and regular tort law that governs personal injury claims.

The first says victims of sexual abuse can sue within three years of the abuse, or within three years after the victim discovers the damage the abuse caused.

Lawmakers said children may repress memories or not understand the connection between the abuse and their injuries until well after the three-year limit. Victims also may not be aware of more serious injuries until years later.

The second option says victims can pursue a claim if they recently discover new information that had been hidden from them.

This comes into play when victims allege that before a priest abused them the church received earlier sexual abuse complaints against him.

Statutes of limitations may appear technical or unfair to victims, legal experts say. But they ensure fairness for defendants by allowing cases to go forward while events are fresh and evidence is available.

"Try figuring out what happened 30 years ago," said Julie Shapiro, an associate professor at Seattle University's law school. "Memory is a fallible thing."

Long delays also can hurt plaintiffs' cases, said Bellevue lawyer Tim Kosnoff, who represents sexual-abuse victims.

If church officials raise the statute of limitations issue, a judge will decide whether the allegations are too old to go to trial. The question is when a victim understood enough of what happened to him to file a lawsuit.

In short: When did the clock start ticking?

Church lawyers could argue victims knew - and the clock began ticking - when the abuse occurred or when allegations against a priest became public knowledge.

"It isn't usually just discovery," Shapiro said. "It's when you should have known."

In McGreal's case, Patterson says the public was very aware of his pedophilia in 1988.

The priest was the subject of media reports and articles in the church's newspaper. And a letter from then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was read at Masses at all parishes, acknowledging McGreal's "sexual disorder."

Shapiro said that not only was good public relations, "it's a great legal move."

Just because adults knew, however, doesn't mean children understood the abuse and its impact, said Jo-Hanna Read, a Seattle lawyer who represents sexual-abuse survivors. So counseling may be the best evidence of what a victim knew and when.

"They know it's wrong," she said. "They usually feel guilty themselves, they convince themselves they have walked away, it's over, they've closed chapters and they're going to go on with their lives."

Then something happens - a child reaches the same age the parent was when he was abused, a marriage breaks up - and the person seeks counseling. For the first time they connect their problems with the abuse, she said.

Jay, who was abused by a priest in Friday Harbor, said he didn't seek counseling until after his marriage broke up. He stopped attending church after the molestation.

"I had no idea all the years of depression had to do with that," he said. "I had suicide attempts going back to my teenage years, depressed states. I never realized why."

Read said it's rare for victims to fully explore issues around the abuse near the time it happens. More likely, she said, the child dealt with his problems on a superficial level.

"Back then, it was a dark issue," Read said. "It was difficult. Even the family that was trying to be genuinely supportive didn't know how to be supportive, and the kid felt like, this is an awful thing I have to get past."

One reason victims have filed lawsuits recently is that they no longer can ignore the issue because of the amount of media coverage, Read said.

Seattle lawyer Ted Parry said he spoke with 20 people who alleged abuse, but felt three cases involving McGreal, Cornelius and Marsh could survive a challenge over statute of limitations.

Some of the men understood the abuse during the 1980s, Parry said. Some even spoke with lawyers then but had trouble getting someone to take the case.

"In theory, they should have brought lawsuits back in the '80s," Parry said.

James Sellers, a Vancouver lawyer representing a man who claims a priest molested him at a Clark County parish in the 1970s, did not return phone calls.

Tacoma lawyer Michael Pfau, who represents 14 men who say priests abused them, declined to elaborate on the evidence he has that shows his lawsuits are within the statute of limitations.

He said the church should keep its promise to do the right thing for victims of pedophile clergy.

"It seems to me somewhat hypocritical to talk about doing the right thing for the victims and then to assert a technical legal defense," Pfau said.

* Staff reporter Steve Maynard contributed to this report.

Sarah Duran: 253-597-8550
[email protected]

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