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SC appeals court backs Catholic Diocese of Charleston in sex-abuse lawsuit technicality

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Diocese of Charleston

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston headquarters is located at the end of Orange Grove Road on the Ashley River. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The South Carolina court of appeals has backed up a 2017 lower court ruling that the diocese and the attorneys who sued in a class-action sex-abuse case needn't answer to victims who weren't formally included in the lawsuit.

In court filings, anonymous plaintiffs argued that Mount Pleasant attorney Larry Richter had neglected to include them in a class-action lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, effectively barring them from receiving proceeds of the case alongside fellow sex-abuse victims.

The diocese includes churches across the Palmetto State.

Both parties were accused of "shopping" for a judge who would allow a settlement that provided known victims a maximum payout at the expense of out-of-state survivors who hadn't formally joined the lawsuit.

A circuit court judge denied them standing in a summary judgment, saying the facts of the case were straightforward and wouldn't require a trial to determine. The plaintiffs said that was improper, but the appellate court upheld the decision in a March 3 opinion.

"We knew all along, in terms of a legal position, that this guy had made one up," Richter told The Post and Courier. "But it's a resounding victory, now we're over and done."

Richter and the diocese agree that the ruling could affect a handful of cases in which Richter is representing survivors of sex abuse by church leaders.

"As before, we believe the courts will apply the law and dismiss the claims against the diocese," said Maria Aselage, the diocese's director of media relations.

The church has been mired in legal struggles for years, with several South Carolinians coming forward to accuse church leaders of sexually abusing them or covering up for their colleagues since the 1950s.

Most recently, Richter filed a $300 million lawsuit against the diocese and Bishop England High School, saying leaders’ negligence allowed staff to watch children undress through windows in the student locker rooms.

That case is pending.

Reach Sara Coello at 843-901-2995 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

Reporter

Sara Coello has covered the Charleston area's justice system for The Post and Courier since September 2019. She previously covered crime and courts at The Dallas Morning News.

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