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Spotlight Report

Church, plaintiffs spar over court dates

By Wendy Davis, Globe Correspondent, 2/28/2003

Lawyers for the Archdiocese of Boston and for alleged victims of Rev. Paul R. Shanley are now battling over whether the first two civil lawsuits should go forward this spring, as originally scheduled, or be delayed.

Plaintiffs' lawyers asked Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney to set an April trial date for the lawsuit brought by Gregory Ford and his family, and a June date for the lawsuit brought by Paul Busa.

If Ford's case goes forward in April, it would be the first of more than 500 lawsuits stemming from the clergy sex abuse scandal to go to trial. Approximately 400 other alleged victims agreed to delay their cases for 90 days in hopes of reaching a settlement with the church. But lawyers for the church argue in court papers that Sweeney should not schedule trial dates for Ford or Busa in the near future. In a motion filed last week, church lawyers say the trials should be postponed because there are still unsettled legal issues, including whether the cases are barred by the statute of limitations and whether the separation of church and state prohibits the lawsuits.

Sweeney has ruled that the First Amendment does not bar the suits, but the archdiocese intends to appeal. Meanwhile, the state Supreme Judicial Court is considering a case involving the statute of limitations in such cases.

Attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents approximately 400 of the alleged victims, including Ford and Busa, filed papers this week opposing any delay, saying it would hurt his clients.

Paula Ford, mother of Gregory Ford, agreed that she wanted to see the lawsuit move ahead as quickly as possible. ''Greg has lost half of his 25 years already to this,'' she said. ''I don't want him to give up another 25 years waiting for this to get resolved.''

But J. Owen Todd, lawyer for Cardinal Bernard F. Law, says it does not make sense to go through the time and expense of a trial, if the case will ultimately be dismissed on legal grounds.

''Why put these people through all of that?'' said Todd, adding that a trial might be unnecessarily traumatic for everyone.

The Massachusetts statute of limitations typically requires victims to file suit within three years of the date they learned, or reasonably should have learned, that they were injured; if they were minors at the time of the abuse, the three-year period doesn't start running until their 18th birthday.

The SJC is considering an appeal in which the main issue is the interpretation of this statute. The SJC is expected to issue a decision later this year. Potentially, that decision could erode the basis for many of the 500 claims.

Church attorneys further argued the case should be postponed until after the grand jury convened by Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly to investigate the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse concludes. ''We shouldn't be having a civil trial until the grand jury has decided whether to indict,'' said Todd.

Lawyers for the church are also attempting to appeal Sweeney's ruling that the First Amendment does not bar the lawsuits in these cases and have asked Sweeney to report her decision to the Appeals Court. MacLeish opposed that request in court papers filed yesterday, arguing it would cause an inordinate delay.

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 2/28/2003.
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