Woman accusing priest of abuse presses case

Posted: July 30, 2013

A recent decision by a federal judge not to dismiss a lawsuit against the Diocese of Camden for allegedly concealing the history of a priest accused of molesting three young girls has been hailed as a significant legal advance for abuse victims.

U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman in late June denied a diocese request to dismiss the case. Part of the diocese's argument was that the statute of limitations had long expired.

Hillman instead ruled that the case brought by Lisa Shanahan, 44, warrants consideration because New Jersey law has exceptions for the statute of limitations that typically expires when a child-abuse victim turns 20.

Victim advocates say the decision is one of two in Camden federal court that show alleged victims of sexual assault are starting to win legal challenges previously lost because of New Jersey's narrow window for suing.

"We are pleased with the decision. It opens the door for us to get documents and evidence," said Miami lawyer Adam Horowitz, who represents Shanahan and specializes in church litigation. "We want to know what [the church] knew, and when they knew it."

Cherry Hill lawyer William DeSantis, who represents the Camden Diocese, disagrees with the court. In a request for reconsideration by Hillman, DeSantis argues that the judge made a "clear error in law" by not dismissing the case.

In Shanahan's case, Hillman ruled there may be grounds to extend the statute of limitations, called tolling. At stake in Shanahan's case is whether the Diocese of Camden will have to turn over personnel records. Shanahan's attorneys argue that those records will show that the church intentionally concealed prior allegations of sexual abuse and could have prevented Shanahan's abuse.

"There was a time when people assumed the church and dioceses would do the right thing. People are more educated and more aware now," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.

"Judges now are more likely to let these cases go forward for fact-finding," said Hamilton, a victim advocate who supports legislation that would modify the state's statute of limitations. "When they have to do discovery, that's when it really gets ugly."

Shanahan, a business executive now living in North Carolina, sued last year, alleging she was sexually abused as a child 10 to 15 times by now-defrocked priest Thomas Harkins. Before the abuse, the diocese knew two other children had alleged they had been molested by Harkins, according to the suit.

Harkins, now 66 and living in Collingswood, had taught Shanahan in a catechism class at St. Anthony of Padua in Hammonton. In 1980 and 1981, Shanahan alleges in her lawsuit, Harkins molested her, at least once in the rectory bedroom, and other times in front of other students, slipping his hand beneath her clothing. He sought her out to do spiritual readings, sometimes going to her house in Shamong to practice, the suit says.

Reached Thursday at his home, Harkins said it would be inappropriate to comment about the lawsuit or allegations, referring questions to the diocese.

Diocese of Camden spokesman Peter Feuerherd said in an interview that the case was still in the preliminary stages. He said attempts to settle it failed when Shanahan's lawyers last year asked for $450,000.

According to diocese records, the Diocese of Camden paid $195,000 to settle two cases involving two other victims who alleged abuse by Harkins in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

On Thursday, Shanahan said she recalled that the church offered her $25,000, about the amount estimated to pay for legal fees.

"They requested mediation, and I agreed," Shanahan said. "I said the personnel records had to be there, and they said no."

More than a year after the case was filed, and even with Hillman's favorable ruling, Shanahan still has no guarantee that the case will get to a jury. Even if the judge stands by his opinion, the Diocese of Camden has a history of fighting vigorously in sexual-abuse cases and successfully avoiding trials.

Harkins was forced out of the ministry in 2002 when a national scandal erupted. Eventually thousands of pedophile priests throughout the country had been identified. Harkins was one of 133 priests in New Jersey listed on a website, Bishop-accountability.org, that monitors sexual abuse by clergy.

Diocese of Camden officials have confirmed previously that Harkins was removed as a result of the allegations, and that the church should have reported the matter to police at the time. Harkins has never been criminally charged.

Shanahan reported her abuse to the church in 2004, unaware of the other victims, she said in an interview. In 2009, she said she learned about the others.

In her lawsuit, Shanahan contends the church intentionally concealed the other cases, allowed Harkins to teach the catechism class, and failed to protect her while she was in church care.

Diocese lawyers counter that as soon as Shanahan reported the abuse, they offered counseling, which she turned down.

If New Jersey law changes, Shanahan also may gain a legal advantage, her attorneys say.

Bipartisan legislation has been proposed to lift the statute of limitations for any childhood victim of sexual or physical abuse to sue, acknowledging that it is often decades before victims can deal with the abuse, or understand the damage it caused. There is also consideration to lift temporarily statute restrictions for new victims to file, or allowing previous plaintiffs to refile.

In the meantime, Shanahan won the right to argue that the law allows for broad interpretation that the church was part of her "household," and therefore held to a higher standard to protect her.

DeSantis said the law is directed at institutions such as boarding schools, not a church where parents normally are present.

Hillman, so far, is not persuaded by the church.

In denying the request to dismiss, Hillman wrote, "Harkins' conduct in coming to the plaintiff's home to practice readings and have dinner with her family suggests more than the 'intermittent and superficial contact' the diocese contends existed here."


Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838, bboyer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @BBBoyer.

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