Published Wednesday, Jun. 30, 2010
A Sacramento attorney is trying an unusual tactic in the ongoing litigation over clergy sexual abuse: He is suing California Catholic Church leaders for fraud and negligence.
Joseph George has filed two suits claiming church leaders acted fraudulently by allowing priests to continue to serve after their alleged crimes were reported.
In the past, attorneys representing victims – including George – have sued for sexual misconduct or battery. The fraud suits are believed to be the first of their kind in the state.
George said the suits are based on the church not doing what the church leaders promised.
"These guys did what their church encouraged them to do – they reported the abuse and they were told that these priests were going to be removed. They weren't," said George. "They were duped."
George filed suit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles last week. He also filed a suit alleging fraud in April in Fresno.
A judge there is expected to decide soon if the case can move forward. The Associated Press reports similar fraud cases have been filed in other states.
If the suits are successful, George believes they will open the doors for similar claims. The attorney said he has represented more than 70 victims alleging sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the past 20 years.
Church leaders said George's recent lawsuits are attempts to circumvent the state's statute of limitations law. The law stipulates that complaints must be filed by the victim's 26th birthday or within three years of the date of discovery, George said.
"This is a baseless and legally unmeritorious attempt to file otherwise time-barred sex abuse cases by engaging in lawyer sleight of hand," said James Sweeney, general counsel for the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. Sweeney is also representing the Fresno Diocese. "There are still statute of limitations in fraud cases."
In the suit filed against the Los Angeles Diocese last week, a man said he told church authorities 16 years ago that he had been molested by a priest, the Rev. Jeffrey Newell. He said church leaders promised the priest would never work with kids again. The man who complained was shocked later to see the priest wearing his collar on MySpace, where he listed teenage boys as friends. He learned the priest was working in the diocese of Tijuana, Mexico.
Church officials told the AP that the priest was removed for "not complying with a treatment program for personal issues including obesity and alcohol" and engaging in "sexual misconduct with an adult."
Larry Levine, a professor specializing in torts at McGeorge School of Law, said fraud cases traditionally involve economic injury.
"I don't think it's frivolous, but it certainly is a creative legal theory," Levine said. "Courts are going to have to think about whether fraud encompasses that kind of harm."
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