Friday, July 16, 2010

Supreme Court offers hope for victims of abuse by priests

Originally Published: 7/16/2010
John Fidler: Supreme Court offers hope for victims of abuse by priests
Good news doesn't come often for survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Theirs have been lives of loneliness, secrecy and shame - for things they say were done to them by priests. And the Catholic church, they and their advocates said, did nothing to help them except move abusive priests to other parishes to abuse again.

A recent decision by the Supreme Court might be the good news survivors have been waiting for.

At least that's how attorneys Jay Abramowitch and Ken Millman of the Leisawitz Heller law firm in Wyomissing viewed the decision, though each in his own way.

The two, as different in temperament as night and day, have represented more than 100 people who said they were sexually abused by priests.

About 50 of their cases have been dismissed because the victims didn't file their cases by age 30, which is stipulated in Pennsylvania under its statute of limitations. Other cases await their turn in court.

The Supreme Court's decision gives a lawsuit from 2002 filed in Oregon by a man alleging abuse by a priest the go-ahead because the court refused to consider whether the Vatican has legal immunity over the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the United States, Reuters news service reported. The ruling was handed down on June 28.

"This is a huge victory for the victims," Abramowitch said. "A monster victory. Enormous. The courts have long held that the Vatican is a sovereign state and therefore immune from prosecution. The Oregon case challenges that assumption."

The Vatican made those claims under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.

Millman, whose conservative demeanor is the perfect foil to Abramowitch's exuberance, added that the case means that priests under Oregon law are employees of the Vatican.

Abramowitch said he thinks he can show that the Vatican, under Pennsylvania law, is the priests' employer and directs their actions, including keeping silent about the alleged abuse.

Chiara Albanese, an Italian legal and financial journalist, wrote in an analysis in The Guardian, "Jeffrey Lena, the U.S.-based lawyer who is defending the Vatican, has argued that the Holy See should not be regarded as an employer of priests because it does not pay them any salary or benefits and does not exercise a day-to-day control on their activity."

Abramowitch said he was excited by the high court's decision.

"They've been hoisted by their own petard," he said, borrowing the sentiment from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" that someone can be defeated by one's own actions.

Abramowitch also discussed a similar case in Kentucky - still undecided - in which an attorney is seeking to have the pope deposed. Immunity is also an issue in that case.

He said he wants to make the right decision for the Pennsylvania victims.

"There's hope even for the cases that were dismissed," he said. "We could sue a different defendant: the individual priest or the Vatican itself."

In the cases that were dismissed, the defendant was the Diocese of Allentown.

Will the survivors receive justice? If they do, it will be because of the work of lawyers such as Abramowitch and Millman and groups such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a nationwide advocacy group.

Once very far off, justice might be right around the corner, a gift from the highest court in the land.

"We've been waiting for 12 years for this day," Abramowitch said.

John Fidler is a copy editor and writer at the Reading Eagle

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