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With all the legal and public relations problems the Catholic Church has had in the last few weeks, the last thing church leaders need is to be called gangsters. But that’s what St. Paul, Minn., lawyer Jeffrey Anderson has done, suing a group of Catholic bishops for allegedly violating federal anti-racketeering laws. Yet, despite allegations of sexual abuse of teen-age boys, bribery and cover-up, lawyers say Anderson’s RICO case will face an uphill fight. Although its use has expanded beyond the Mafia-run organizations it was intended to help dismantle, lawyers say, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act has limits that will likely prevent its widespread use in sexual abuse cases and that may leave Anderson’s client, identified in court papers as John Doe, empty-handed. “Mobsters are criminals who infiltrate legitimate businesses and engage in a pattern of racketeering and obstruction of justice, bribery and aiding and abetting of crimes,” Anderson told the CNN audience on March 22, the day he filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic dioceses of Palm Beach, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and Jefferson City, Mo., and the three bishops who presided over them. One of the defendants, Anthony J. O’Connell, resigned as bishop of Palm Beach on March 8 after it was revealed that the Jefferson City diocese had secretly paid $125,000 in 1996 to settle the claims of a man who claimed that O’Connell molested him when he was a high school student at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo. O’Connell was the rector at the seminary from 1964 to 1988. In addition to the Palm Beach diocese, O’Connell served as bishop in Knoxville and Jefferson City. TRACK RECORD Anderson, a partner in the St. Paul, Minn., firm Reinhardt & Anderson, has handled hundreds of clergy sex-abuse lawsuits, winning high verdicts and settlements for many of his clients. He has filed suit on behalf of two other men who claim they also were sexually abused by O’Connell — as teen-agers at St. Thomas — both identified only as John Doe. Anderson’s first John Doe plaintiff sued in Missouri state court March 18. The plaintiff in the separate RICO lawsuit is a 34-year-old St. Louis man who claims O’Connell began molesting him when he was a 15-year-old seminarian at St. Thomas in the early 1980s. According to Anderson, the man received a total of $12,000 from the bishop after confronting him about the abuse in 1994. Anderson represents a third accuser who has not yet sued. Anderson says this third man received checks of $400 each, drawn on the bishop’s checking account, every two months beginning in 1996. The most recent of these payments came in February, says Anderson. All of the payments were made with the understanding that the men not report the abuse, says Anderson. O’Connell could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, James C. Geoly of Chicago’s Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, says he cannot address the specific charges that O’Connell made payments to Anderson’s clients. But he objects to the characterization of any payments as payoffs. “I think there are people who he thought he should try to help,” says Geoly. “I don’t think there are people whose silence was bought.” The most obvious hurdles to clergy abuse cases that happened years ago are statutes of limitation. In Anderson’s RICO case, he claims the bishops’ conspiracy prevented his client from understanding the wrongfulness of O’Connell’s sexual abuse, meaning that the statute of limitations clock didn’t get started until March. But several lawyers say Anderson’s client, who confronted Bishop O’Connell over the abuse in 1994 and who later accepted money from the bishop, will have a hard time showing that the four-year RICO limitations period hasn’t run out. Other potential problems lie in the requirements of the RICO statute itself. While RICO holds out the possibility of triple damages and injunctive remedies that might otherwise be unavailable, it also comes with elements that can be hard to satisfy. As a result, while at least three other sex-abuse cases against Catholic Church officials have been framed as RICO cases, so far none of them has been permitted to go forward. The small community of lawyers who sue the Catholic Church in clergy abuse cases say church lawyers are often very aggressive in defending against lawsuits by people who claim they were abused by priests. “Obviously the law extends many privileges to those who are in power and have the purse to pay,” says Jason Berry, who wrote “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.” He says that church lawyers often pursue hardball litigation tactics and, when forced to settle, try to keep the abuse under wraps, bargaining money for silence. Another obstacle lies in the RICO requirement that a plaintiff be “injured in his business or property,” generally barring tort and personal injury claims. Lawyers who defend the church claim Anderson’s suit is nothing but a traditional negligence claim. “Essentially he’s filed a tort lawsuit as a RICO lawsuit,” says Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. While Anderson agrees that the business injury requirement makes RICO inappropriate in most abuse cases, he says the sexual abuse suffered by his client and the conspiracy to keep him quiet prevented him from pursuing a career as a priest and from pursuing compensation for his injuries. These are sufficient business injuries to satisfy RICO, he believes. Other lawyers who sue the church worry that an ill-advised RICO suit may result in a harmful precedent and hurt all of them. “A lot of people are trying to get at the bishops. I just don’t see it,” says Jeffrey A. Newman of Boston’s Newman & Ponsetto, another plaintiffs’ lawyer in clergy abuse cases. “My opinion is that he’s stretching the RICO statute quite a bit.” Some lawsuits involving churches have been dismissed under the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment when they require courts to rule on questions of belief and church doctrine. Lawyers say that the Catholic Church frequently raises First Amendment defenses in clergy abuse cases, either to avoid pretrial discovery by the plaintiff or to avoid liability altogether. But courts have often held that the church can be held liable when neutral tort law principles are applied to it. On March 14, the Florida Supreme Court held the First Amendment did not bar a lawsuit against church officials for negligently hiring and supervising a priest accused of sex with a parishioner he was counseling. “The trend is to reject the idea that, just because you happen to wear a collar, you’re immune to the charge of putting children in the charge of a pedophile,” says Roderick MacLeish Jr., a partner in the Boston office of Greenberg Traurig. MacLeish, who represented 99 individuals in a settlement involving a single Boston priest, says increased attention to the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is prompting many victims to come forward. Greenberg Traurig is gearing up to handle cases in 11 states where the firm has offices. And plaintiffs’ lawyers say they have been consulted by colleagues in other countries, including Canada, France, Australia and Ireland. In addition to problems with the statute of limitation and the property damage requirement, Notre Dame Law School professor G. Robert Blakey says the complaint fails to show the pattern of racketeering activities necessary to support a RICO complaint, in addition to other problems. Blakey, who drafted the RICO statute as a congressional staffer, has written extensively about the law and has argued many RICO cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the late 1990s, he advised the U.S. Department of Justice and state attorneys general who used RICO to go after the tobacco industry. Although he says the right case and artful pleading could get around some of the problems in Anderson’s complaint, Blakey does not think RICO has much place in clergy sex-abuse cases. And he is blunt about the chances for Anderson’s case, saying that it comes close to violating the federal rule against frivolous claims. “This is like investing in Enron — now,” says Blakey. “It’s the Enron of RICO suits.” For his part, Anderson says his claims of conspiracy are backed up by documents and testimony developed in 20 years of suing over abuse by priests. He and law partner Mark Reinhardt — who argued a RICO case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 — say they are well aware of the requirements of the statute and believe they will meet them in the John Doe case.

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