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Saturday, June 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sex-abuse suits to continue against 2 Catholic dioceses

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A judge in Spokane County Superior Court has rejected a motion by the Roman Catholic dioceses of Spokane and Seattle to dismiss on constitutional grounds several lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests.

The Diocese of Spokane in March asked the court to dismiss several lawsuits alleging clergy sexual abuse against multiple victims, saying a 1988 change in state law broadening the civil statute of limitations for child sex-abuse victims was unconstitutional.

The Seattle Archdiocese joined in the motion in one of the cases involving the Rev. Patrick O'Donnell, a former Spokane priest who served in a Seattle parish while in the city for sexual-deviancy treatment. In that suit, three men said they were abused as minors while O'Donnell was serving at St. Paul's Church in Rainier Beach.

Both dioceses argued the 1988 change in the law violates constitutional due process by depriving the church of its vested rights.

"Once a limitations period has expired and a cause of action becomes barred under the statute, the defendant has a vested right to rely on the statutory bar as a defense," the Spokane Diocese argued in its motion for summary-judgment dismissal.

Michael Patterson, attorney for the Seattle Archdiocese, said, "Our position, and Spokane's position, is that because (for) a number of these individuals, the statutes of limitation had run before the 1988 legislation, it's the law that applied prior to 1988 that should apply to those matters."

The 1988 statute allows victims to file suits either within three years from the time of the last alleged act, three years from when a victim discovers or remembers that such an act happened, or three years from the time a victim realizes that it damaged his life.

Michael Pfau of Bellevue, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the cases, said Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno ruled that the statute was constitutional and could be applied retroactively.

Moreno's ruling affects about 28 victims in six cases, including those against O'Donnell. The first of the O'Donnell cases is scheduled to go to trial in Spokane Nov. 29.

The Seattle Archdiocese made a similar argument in King County Superior Court in February, when it sought to dismiss a case against the Rev. James McGreal, in part on similar constitutional grounds.

In that case, Judge Paris Kallas did not rule on the statute's constitutionality because she denied the church's motion to dismiss the suit on other grounds.

That McGreal suit was settled in April.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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