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An attorney for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia told Common Pleas Judge Arnold L. New on Thursday that plaintiffs who say they were sexually abused in their youth by Roman Catholic priests should have hired lawyers and investigated the church and their alleged injuries sooner to preserve their right to sue. Because the alleged victims waited until recently to file their lawsuits, the attorney argued, the statute of limitations has run. The attorney, C. Clark Hodgson Jr., asked New to dismiss almost two dozen lawsuits, including Parisi v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia and C.J.M. v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, filed by people who claim they were molested by clergy as long ago as the 1950s. Hodgson, a lawyer at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, called abuse of children at the hands of priests “tragic” but said faded memories and the deaths of witnesses, including 10 of the accused priests, would make it impossible for the church to defend itself now. “They were required to proceed with due diligence,” Hodgson said. “They did not. They were required to proceed with an investigation; they did not.” Pennsylvania generally bars personal injury lawsuits that aren’t filed within two years of an alleged injury. Hodgson relied in part on Dalrymple v. Brown, a 1997 Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion in which a majority of the justices refused to apply the discovery rule to cases involving repressed memory. The statute of limitations shouldn’t necessarily be tolled because the plaintiff couldn’t remember an assault, Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy wrote in that opinion. The Dalrymple decision threw out a woman’s lawsuit against a man she claimed sexually assaulted her when she was a child. Stewart J. Eisenberg, who represents six people suing the church, wanted New to break with Dalrymple and adopt Justice Sandra Schultz Newman’s reasoning in her Dalrymple concurrence. “Where a plaintiff alleges a contemporaneous dissociation and repression of all memory of childhood sexual abuse, it is for the jury to decide whether to apply the discovery rule to toll the statute of limitations,” Newman wrote. Eisenberg told New that it would be unfair to expect children being raped and molested by their priests to have hired lawyers and investigated their alleged injuries. “Don’t cut off these people’s rights without an opportunity to find out what happened,” said Eisenberg, an attorney at Eisenberg Rothweiler Schleifer Weinstein & Winkler. “If you permit the archdiocese to hide behind the statute of limitations, an extreme injustice will be done.” New questioned both plaintiffs’ attorneys and appeared annoyed when Eisenberg asserted that the archdiocese was hiding behind the statute of limitations. Eisenberg and the other plaintiffs’ attorney, Jay N. Abramowitch of Leisawitz Heller Abramowitch Phillips in Wyomissing, have tried to get around the statute of limitations defense by arguing that church officials conspired for decades to hide the role they played in protecting abusive priests. Eisenberg told New that the victims couldn’t have known at the time that the church was covering up what was happening to them. “But they knew of the battery,” New said. “The battery in this instance doesn’t trigger the liability of the archdiocese,” Eisenberg replied. It is the church’s cover-up that does, he said. The suits, which were filed within the past year, said the plaintiffs didn’t realize the church might have had a role in concealing abuse until 2002, when U.S. bishops publicly acknowledged the extent of the problem for the first time. Abramowitch argued that two recent Superior Court opinions support his contention that the statute of limitations doesn’t apply to a plaintiff who had no way of knowing that a defendant was the responsible defendant because of some fraudulent act. Last month, a three-judge panel in Lehigh County refused to throw out six lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. A Westmoreland County judge issued a similar ruling, clearing a way for lawsuits against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa. Hodgson tried to discourage New from adopting the reasoning of the Lehigh County court. “This is no more than one county’s approach to this problem,” he said. New did not indicate when or how he would rule, but Eisenberg said after the hearing that he was “extremely optimistic” that the judge would follow the other Pennsylvania rulings and permit the cases to go forward. The Philadelphia archdiocese said in February that 44 priests have been “credibly” accused of molesting minors since the 1950s. Separately from the civil suits, a grand jury has been meeting for more than a year to determine whether criminal charges are warranted against any priests or the church officials. To date, only one priest has been indicted, but the panel has heard testimony from several top church officials, including Philadelphia’s former archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. David B. Caruso of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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