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Suit Claims Diocese And Bishops Conspired To Cover-Up Sex Abuse Judge Pondering Use Of Rico Statute In Class-Action Case

Maureen Graham Philadelphia Inquirer

Can a racketeering law written to deal with conspiratorial business practices be applied to the Catholic Church in the issue of pedophile priests?

That is the question an Atlantic County judge is pondering as a massive, class-action lawsuit filed in November against the Diocese of Camden, N.J., moves forward.

Friday, attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a 400-page complaint contending that the civil Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, statute should be applied to the case. The plaintiffs allege that a five-decade practice of covering up priests’ sexual abuse of children warrants the RICO application.

The RICO allegations in the classaction suit contend that the diocese and the American bishops conspired for half a century to cover up sexual abuse of children by 30 priests.

Friday’s complaint was in response to an order by Superior Court Judge Richard Williams, who had given the plaintiffs’ attorneys three weeks to outline why he should not eliminate the racketeering allegations from the suit.

Camden Bishop James P. McHugh, who has called the racketeering allegations “a twisted legal theory,” said they and the lawsuit had been brought “so that the diocese will be forced to pay the claimants millions of dollars.”

In the amended complaint, attorneys Stephen Rubino and Edward Ross outlined why they believe the court should consider RICO.

The law, they said, was written to protect citizens from an organization that used its power to rob them of their property rights by conspiring to cover up its members’ wrongdoing.

In the issue of pedophile priests, the attorneys alleged, the church covered up the wrongdoing to protect its assets, especially church collections.

In the amended complaint, the attorneys have tried to bolster their argument.

They contend that the sexualassault victims “were damaged in their employment or calling … by the same said racketeering activity and enterprise.”

The attorneys listed several examples: The assault victims “were injured in their business or property in that they were deprived of the society, services, earning capacity, consortium, and other property rights,” and were damaged “by having to expend … money on medical care and treatment.”

The original class action contends that the 30 priests, a nun and a church volunteer were involved in child sexual abuse as far back as 1937.