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Utah Supreme Court shoots down sex abuse case

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2007 9:32 a.m. MDT

The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday came down against two adult brothers who claimed they had been sexually abused as boys by a Catholic priest 30 years ago, ruling that the statute of limitations has run out.

Ralph Louis Colosimo and Charles Matthew Colosimo in 2003 filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the Diocese of Salt Lake, Judge Memorial High School and other parties. They sought damages for what they said they had suffered after being sexually abused in the 1970s by a now-defrocked priest, James Rapp, who taught at the high school and also was a trusted family friend.

Rapp currently is in prison serving a 40-year sentence after pleading no contest to sexually violating a boy in Oklahoma.

The high court ruling ends the Colosimos' legal battle.

Their lawsuit was dismissed by 3rd District Judge Paul Maughan, but the Colosimos pursued an appeal. The Utah Supreme Court in 2005 agreed to review a narrow issue of their case: "Whether plaintiffs' awareness of sexual abuse entailed a reasonable knowledge of, or a duty to inquire about, the facts necessary to support claims that the defendants knew of the abuse and failed to adequately supervise the perpetrator or to prevent the abuse."

The Colosimos had argued the institutions that employed and supervised Rapp knew he had sexually abused boys before, but deliberately concealed it to protect their own interests.

Under Utah law, an individual has four years after his or her 18th birthday to bring a legal claim.

The Colosimos maintained that, in their case, the statue of limitations was "tolled," or suspended, because they had a right to conduct discovery to get evidence regarding what the various institutions knew about Rapp.

Ralph Colosimo had said he had repressed memories of the abuse that surfaced in therapy. Charles Colosimo said he never forgot it, but did not make a connection between the abuse and his injuries until years later in therapy.

However, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that the discovery rule did not toll the statute of limitations.

"In this case, the Colosimos knew that they had been abused and that Rapp was the abuser. They also knew or were constructively on notice of the relationships between Rapp and the institutional defendants and of the duties owed to them by those institutional defendants," the ruling stated.

The high court also said if it followed the arguments put forth by the Colosimos, claims against someone like Rapp would be subject to the statute of limitations, but other "remote" entities would remain liable indefinitely. "We fail to see the logic in such a scheme," the ruling said.

Matthew McNulty, lawyer for the diocese, the high school and its trustees, said the Utah Supreme Court ruling was consistent with the legislature's direction regarding the statute of limitations and with case law.

"The diocese has offered pastoral care consistently for Ralph and Charles Colosimo and their families, and pastoral outreach, in the past, and it will continue to do so. Every family and victim that is impacted by abuse, whether it involves a church or not, is a terrible tragedy," McNulty said. "We have a responsibility to step in and offer pastoral care to victims and their families. They will, as they have always been, in our prayers."

Larry Keller, attorney for the Colosimos, said his clients are "very distressed" over the ruling.

"Our courts have chosen to ignore their situation and allow a technicality of the law to prevent them from bringing a case in which no one questions they were abused," Keller said.

"I respect the Supreme Court and its decision, but it has allowed institutional defendants to hide behind a technicality of the law and not come to the plate and own up to their responsibility for what happened back then. That's unfair and unfortunate, but that's what the Supreme court has decided it wants the law in this state to be," Keller said.

"In 1992, our legislature recognized how important it was to toll the statute under certain circumstances, but this occurred before then, so my clients don't get the benefit of that. I would like the legislature to take this up again," Keller said.

Named in the Colosimo lawsuit were the Diocese of Salt Lake (which encompasses the entire state); Judge Memorial High School and its financial trustees; the Archdiocese of San Francisco (of which the Salt Lake diocese is part); and Oblates of St. Francis (the religious order that ordained Rapp).


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com

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