January 04, 2006

N.Y. High Court Confronts Implications of Liability for Old Abuse Cases


John Caher
New York Law Journal

The emotion-laden issue of clergy sexual abuse faced the cold calculation of the law Tuesday when New York's Court of Appeals heard pivotal arguments on whether the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled to give dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of victims their day in court.

Zumpano v. Quinn, 1, and Estate of Boyle v. Smith, 2, could expose Roman Catholic dioceses to liability for acts that occurred decades ago. But the cases could also significantly weaken the statute of limitations in myriad other tort actions if the court were to find that an allegation of coverup, especially when related to harm done to children, automatically triggers the equitable estoppel exception to the time bar.

Both cases involve plaintiffs who claim they were abused by priests as far back as 1960. A key question is whether the dioceses involved, Brooklyn and Syracuse, were complicit in perpetuating the sexual abuse of minors and effectively concealed their complicity from the victims, and whether concealment alone is enough to implicate a rule that says a wrongdoer should not be permitted "to take refuge behind the shield of his own wrong" (see General Stencils v. Chiappa, 18 NY2d 125, 1966).

Posted by kshaw at January 4, 2006 07:38 AM