CAMDEN — A woman who claims she was sexually abused by a parish priest in Hammonton more than 30 years ago has won a round in her lawsuit against the Diocese of Camden.
A federal judge in Camden rebuffed a request by the diocese to dismiss the suit, filed in May 2012 by Lisa Syvertson Shanahan of North Carolina.
An attorney for the diocese argued Shanahan waited too long to sue over alleged abuse in 1980 and 1981 by the Rev. Thomas Harkins at St. Anthony of Padua in Hammonton. But U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman said Shanahan could pursue her suit under the state’s Child Sex Abuse Act, which can delay for decades the normal two-year statute of limitations.
Adam Horowitz, an attorney for Shanahan, called the ruling “a victory for all child sex abuse victims in New Jersey.
“We now get to gather evidence to prove our case,” he said, noting attorneys will exchange documents and take sworn testimony from Harkins, Shanahan and others.
“We are particularly interested in getting copies of the Diocese of Camden’s personnel records on Father Harkins,” Horowitz said.
William J. DeSantis, a lawyer for the diocese, could not be reached for comment.
Shanahan claims Harkins abused her when she was a fifth-grade student attending Confirmation classes with the priest. Her lawsuit contends the priest assaulted her 10 to 15 times in his office and bedroom.
The lawsuit contends the abuse ended when Harkins was transferred from the parish. Shanahan said she learned only in recent years the move came in response to another complaint of improper conduct by Harkins. Her suit also says Shanahan didn’t realize she had grounds to sue until October 2009, when she became aware of legal action by other alleged victims.
Under the Child Sex Abuse Act, the clock starts ticking on the two-year statute of limitations “at the time of reasonable discovery of the injury and its causal relationship to the act of sexual abuse.” The law allows alleged victims to sue so-called “passive abusers” — people or organizations that fail to stop a perpetrator.
DeSantis argued the diocese did not fall under the state law’s provisions, which essentially say a passive abuser must play a role equivalent to a child’s parents and must be part of the victim’s “household.” Instead, the diocese asserted it had “intermittent and superficial contact” with Shanahan as a child.
But Hillman said the diocese provided only “minimal evidence” to support its view, while Shanahan’s attorneys made a more convincing argument. Among other points, the judge noted, Shanahan’s lawyers said Harkins “took a special interest in (the girl) and gave (her) honors, gifts and took (her) to outings off church grounds.”
They also alleged Harkins groomed the girl for abuse by visiting her home to practice church readings and have dinner with her family.
Hillman said the diocese could submit additional arguments if new evidence emerges.
Horowitz said he believes the judge’s June 27 ruling will stand, but called on state legislators to extend the statute of limitations.
“The notion that child abuse victims must file suit within two years or else their claim is forever barred is archaic, unfair and should not be rigidly enforced,” he said. “That is particularly true here, where the victim did not know or have reason to know that the diocese was negligent in its supervision of Father Harkins.”
Harkins is not named in the suit. He was defrocked about 10 years ago and now works as a security guard at Philadelphia International Airport.
Written by Jim Walsh Gannett New Jersey