Sex-abuse lawsuit vs. church to proceed
TOMS RIVER — A $100 million lawsuit against St. Thomas LutheranChurch in Brick will proceed, after a judge Friday declined to dismisscomplaints brought by 19 men who allege they were molested as childrenin the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s by the church's one-time pastor.
StateSuperior Court Judge Thomas E. O'Brien denied requests to dismiss thelawsuit made by attorneys representing the church and its adjacent St.Thomas Christian Academy on Salmon Street, the church's and school'sofficials and parent organizations, and the estate of the formerpastor, the late Rev. Robert L. Slegel.
Toms River attorneyRobert R. Fuggi filed the lawsuit on behalf of 19 plaintiffs, who nowrange in age from 29 to 52. They allege they were molested by Slegelwhen they were between 5 to 15 years old. A 20th man also claims he wasmolested as a child by Slegel; Fuggi said he plans to add that man as aplaintiff.
"Today was a significant victory," Phillipsburgattorney Gregory Gianforcaro, another attorney representing theplaintiffs, said afterward. "It means that the case can proceed on forpretrial hearings."
For a 40-year-old Brick man who is one of the19 plaintiffs, the decision means he can continue with his quest toprotect his own and other children from similar sexual abuse.
"I'ma parent, and I have two small children, and I don't want anyone to gothrough what I went through," said the man, who like other plaintiffsis identified in the suit only by his initials. "I don't want anyone togo through the hell that I and the other 19 did."
The man, whoattended Friday's hearing with 12 of the other plaintiffs, said outsidethe courthouse that he was 6 years old and would play ball in thestreet every day with his friends when Slegel opened the doors to thechurch's facilities to them, telling them they could have a place toplay, rain or shine.
Soon after that, the man alleged, Slegelwould take him into his office and make him sit on his lap. The manalleged that the molestations occurred while the boy played with thepastor's typewriter.
The molestation occurred weekly for seven years, until he was 13, the man claimed.
Asked the number of times it occurred, the man responded, "I can't count that high."
Bythe time he was a teenager, "I turned to alcohol, marijuana and cocaine— anything to bury it," the man said. "I was guilty of living a blockaway (from the church). I was just trying to be a kid."
Alsooutside the courthouse, the mother of another plaintiff, who did notidentify herself to protect the identity of her son, said: "We thoughtit was awesome that the church was opening its doors to the kids, andwe were totally trusting. We never heard anything (about sexual abuseby clergy) back then."
Attorneys for the church argued Friday that the church,school and its officials have immunity because of their status ascharitable organizations. They also maintained that the two-yearstatute of limitations had long passed before the lawsuit was filed in2005. The alleged acts occurred 20 or more years earlier, William J.Conroy, attorney for the church and school, told O'Brien.
"Myclient is deceased, which means this case is a very difficult case todefend for all of the defendants," said Linda A. Olsen, the attorneyrepresenting the estate of Slegel, who was living in Southern Shores,N.C., when he died last year at age 77.
Normally, the statute oflimitations would have started to run when the plaintiffs turned 18.But Fuggi said that because of his clients' repressed or delayedmemories of the alleged abuse, the statute of limitations would notstart to run until they realized the molestation caused emotionalproblems they are experiencing as adults.
O'Brien ordered thatthe plaintiffs be examined by medical and mental-health experts for thedefense to determine when they remembered the alleged abuse andrealized what effect it had on them.
The judge ordered futurehearings to be held on that matter and on the relationship of eachplaintiff with the church and school to determine whether their claimscan proceed to trial or are barred by either charitable immunity or thestatute of limitations.
O'Brien, in making his ruling, cited a2006 decision by the state Supreme Court in a case involving allegedchild sexual assault — John W. Hardwicke against the American BoychoirSchool. The Hardwicke decision said charitable organizations are notimmune to claims brought for willful, wanton or grossly negligentconduct, and that an institution such as a school can be viewed as achild abuser if it is standing in place of a child's parents and failsto protect the youngster from abuse.
The judge said he would meetwith the attorneys in November 2008 to schedule pretrial hearings,after the plaintiffs are examined.
Two complaints dismissed
O'Brien dismissed complaints brought by two of the plaintiffsagainst the Rev. John M. Elstad, an associate pastor who worked underSlegel and assumed the post of senior pastor upon Slegel's resignationamid scandal in 1993. Offenses alleged by those two preceded Elstad'sarrival at the church. The judge let stand the complaints of theremaining plaintiffs against Elstad.
The lawsuit has alleged thatElstad, who retired in 2004, and other church and school officialsturned a blind eye to the molestations.
Elstad's attorney,Michael Gilberti, has denied that Elstad had any knowledge of thealleged abuse. Joseph Goldberg, an attorney representing officials ofthe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and 192 Lutheran churchesknown as the New Jersey Synod, said the church officials named asdefendants were not yet in office when the alleged offenses occurred.
Withthe exception of Gilberti, attorneys for the defendants declined tocomment after O'Brien issued his rulings. Gilberti said he was notsurprised by the judge's decision.
Kathleen Hopkins: (732) 557-5732 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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