Statute waiver sought in sex case Two women alleging high school abuse by priest press for trial

April 09, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson and Joe Nawrozki | Robert A. Erlandson and Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

ANNAPOLIS -- In a continuation of Maryland's first legal test of recovered memory, lawyers for two women who accuse a Roman Catholic priest of sexually abusing them in high school 25 years ago asked the Court of Appeals yesterday to waive the three-year statute of limitations on a lawsuit and send their case to trial.

The women, identified as Jane Doe and Jane Roe, filed the $40 million suit in August 1994 against the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, former chaplain and counselor at Archbishop Keough High School; the Archdiocese of Baltimore; Dr. Christian Richter, a retired gynecologist accused of molesting Ms. Roe in collaboration with the priest; and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who operate Keough.

The seven appellate judges, who heard 90 minutes of legal arguments yesterday, gave no indication when they would rule on whether to create an exception to the statute of limitations for recovered memory in sexual abuse cases, an issue not addressed by the General Assembly.

Because the case is a legal landmark, the Court of Appeals -- the state's highest court -- agreed to bypass the Court of Special Appeals and hear it directly.

Lawyers for the suspended priest and his co-defendants argued that Baltimore Circuit Judge Hilary D. Caplan, who has since left the bench, was correct when he dismissed the suit in May. Judge Caplan held that the women's recovery of long-suppressed memories did not meet the legal standard for an exception to the statute of limitations for civil suits.

The hearing before Judge Caplan was confined to the legal and scientific issues involving recovered memories.

Yesterday, the woman known as Jane Roe sat with her husband, two rows behind the gynecologist she claims raped her decades ago. She said it was the first time she has seen him since the alleged attack.

Defense lawyers tried to convince the high court that the plaintiffs allowed decades to pass before they filed their suit -- even though they were consciously aware that some of the abuse allegedly occurred and they came of age to sue within the three-year limitation.

"What happened between 1972 and 1994?" asked Kevin M. Murphy, representing the archdiocese.

Priest 'next to God'

But Philip G. Dantes, one of the three lawyers representing the women, argued the delay in seeking legal recourse was because of alleged trauma Father Maskell inflicted on them. While they were at Keough, the women felt the priest was "next to God," he said.

In their legal brief, the plaintiffs' lawyers alleged that Father Maskell threatened one of the women by beating her, threatened her with a knife, placed a gun to her head and inserted it in her mouth.

At the end of last spring's weeklong hearing, which included extensive expert testimony for both sides, Judge Caplan called it an "egregious case" but ruled against the women on the legal issue. "The court in no way is judging [the plaintiffs'] credibility, but their recollection. That did not meet the test of scientific reliability," the judge said.

Legislative silence

While at least 20 states have allowed similar sexual abuse lawsuits based on recovered memory to proceed, the Maryland General Assembly has not dealt with the issue of waiving the statute of limitation in such cases.

"The [legislature's] silence in this regard is an indication that, as with all other discovery rule situations, the application of the rule is left to the sound discretion of the judiciary," the women's lawyers said in their appellate brief.

The plaintiffs said they had repressed the traumatic memories of incidents until a few years ago. They argued to Judge Caplan -- unsuccessfully -- that this qualified them for an exception to the statute of limitations on civil suits for those judged to be mentally incompetent at the time of the alleged incidents.

Jane Roe testified then that she had always remembered abuse by Father Maskell, but not until 1993, in her testimony before Judge Caplan, did she recall being raped by him and by Dr. Richter, to whom the priest had referred her.

Jane Doe had told Judge Caplan she remembered nothing of the abuse at Keough until 1992, after she had completed therapy for childhood sexual abuse by an uncle.

She complained to the archdiocese at the time, but church officials said their investigation could not corroborate her allegations.

After that, Ms. Doe hired Mr. Dantes, whose subsequent newspaper ads seeking victims of sexual abuse at Keough produced more than 40 replies, including one from Jane Roe. The others could not join the suit because they had continuous memory of the alleged abuses.

Pretrial agreement

A pretrial agreement permitted no corroborative testimony, although the women's lawyers said they had other women willing to testify against Father Maskell.

In interviews with The Sun, both plaintiffs and other former students at the all-girl institution in Southwest Baltimore have detailed their allegations against the priest, including forced participation in bizarre sexual acts.

Father Maskell and Dr. Richter denied any misconduct or sexual improprieties in interviews with The Sun.

Father Maskell resigned his pastorship at St. Augustine's in Elkridge, Howard County, in the summer of 1994 to seek treatment for what he said was stress and anxiety induced by a city police investigation of his actions at Keough and the threatened lawsuit.

The state's attorney brought no criminal charge, but an archdiocesan spokesman said that Father Maskell remains suspended and "on leave of absence" from the church.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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