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Utah priest abuse lawsuit poses new challenge to time limits on old cases

Guy Platt, pictured in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, is suing the Catholic Diocese in Utah, alleging a priest abused him years ago. Platt didn’t learn until recently that the man was a cleric.
Guy Platt, pictured in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, is suing the Catholic Diocese in Utah, alleging a priest abused him years ago. Platt didn’t learn until recently that the man was a cleric.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — What began as a routine visit to the deli aisle last year ended in a revelation for Guy Platt.

Platt spotted the Colosimo name on a pork sausage label and wondered if it belonged to a member of the family he recalled from childhood. But an online search turned up a series of mugshots and a more profound connection.

The man he said he remembers sexually abusing and threatening him five decades earlier hadn’t been a schoolmate’s father like he’d thought. Rather, he was a Roman Catholic priest later convicted of victimizing boys in Michigan and Oklahoma, and accused of similar conduct in Utah.

“I was having heart palpitations, those kind of feelings that you get when you’re angry and in shock and when you feel guilty,” Platt recalled in a recent interview.

As adults, Utah brothers Matthew and Ralph Colosimo came forward as victims of repeated abuse by James Rapp in the years following Platt’s own alleged encounters with the onetime cleric.

Platt is now suing the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City for damages of more than $300,000, contending the diocese knew Rapp was “wholly unfit to work around children” but allowed him to do so.

The defrocked priest is serving a prison term in Oklahoma after pleading guilty to later allegations of sexual abuse connected to his work. In 2016, he was sentenced in Michigan to at least 20 years for similar crimes during the 1980s.

The Colosimo brothers lost their legal effort in 2007 after the Utah Supreme Court determined the case was too old.

But Platt believes he has good odds based on his recent discovery of Rapp’s clerical status. Utah law provides a four-year window to sue after a person finds out someone has improperly concealed facts that would support a legal claim.

Attorney Eric Olson said his client missed the typical deadline to sue because he alleges the diocese kept the abuse secret until after the time ran out. A nun who saw one assault threatened the boy instead of reporting the behavior to police or his parents, Olson said.

Guy Platt, pictured in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, is suing the Catholic Diocese in Utah, alleging a priest abused him years ago. Platt didn’t learn until recently that the man was a cleric.
Guy Platt, pictured in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, is suing the Catholic Diocese in Utah, alleging a priest abused him years ago. Platt didn’t learn until recently that the man was a cleric.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“There was a nun who walked in on it, and then the conduct continued to happen,” said Olson. So there’s really no question that they knew about it in our mind.”

Two years ago, the diocese said Rapp was among 19 clergymen at the heart of credible allegations of sexual abuse dating to 1950. It disclosed that Rapp abused at least four minors in Utah from 1969 to 1975, Platt alleges in his lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.

Those named in the lawsuit “subsequently moved Rapp to locations outside of Utah to conceal Rapp’s misconduct, and in hopes that he would change with a fresh start,” it says.

The diocese declined comment. But it has previously said it is saddened by the allegation and did not know of any such abuse, which it called “abhorrent,” in the four years Rapp taught high school students in Utah. A policy in place since 1990 mandates reporting to authorities and pastoral outreach for alleged victims, according to a statement on its website.

Laws dictating time limits on civil lawsuits differ from state to state. In Utah, cases like Platt’s don’t often go up on appeal, so it could ultimately set precedent in the Beehive State, said victim rights expert Paul Cassell.

“This case fits into a national pattern of attorneys trying to seek justice for victims by finding ways in which the statute of limitations needs to be tolled,” or suspended, said Cassell, a former federal judge who teachers law at the University of Utah.

“I don’t want to say this has never been tried before,” he continued. “But it does look like some of the issues that are being pursued here, by what seems to be a very capable legal effort, could well set a precedent for Utah and how these kinds of cases are handled.”

Legal arguments based on those sorts of exceptions reflect that it often takes a victim years to come forward, Cassell said.

Some states, like New York and California, have made it easier to sue institutions over old claims of abuse, said Judy Larson with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

“He’s got an uphill battle,” Larson said of Platt. But lawsuits like his serve another purpose, she said, reminding people that sexual abuse is more common than they might think.

Platt graduated from high school, went on to get married and have kids but spent years trying to put the assaults out of his mind, turning to alcohol and drugs to help him do so, he told the Deseret News.

“You learn how to survive by numbing,” said Platt, now 20 years sober.

Time in counseling and a guiding principle of Alcoholics Anonymous — that people must hold themselves and others accountable — helped him realize he wanted to sue, he said.

A foster child adopted by a Utah family at age 5, Platt had “significant behavior issues” and began attending Kearns-St. Ann Catholic School in the second grade in 1968 after being expelled from public school.

When he tried to take communion at the neighboring church even though he wasn’t Catholic, he was sent back to the school building, the suit says. He encountered a man there who he had previously seen drop off a fellow student, believing him to be the child’s father.

The man — dressed in plain clothes and without a white collar typical of priests — introduced himself as “Jim,” before kneeling down, hugging Platt and sexually assaulting him, the lawsuit states. When the young Platt resisted, the man became angry and “physically threatening.”

The lawsuit alleges it was the first of several similar, violent encounters wherein Rapp threatened to kill the boy if he told anyone. When a nun walked in and saw one assault, the suit says, the man shoved Platt away forcefully and into a wall, causing his face to bleed.

The sister was “shocked. She turned around and walked out,” according to the lawsuit.

Platt alleges the nun warned him she would have him sent back into the foster care system if he told anyone, the suit alleges, but he feared a return to the physical and sexual abuse he endured as a foster child.

Years later, as a runaway teenager hitchhiking on State Street in Salt Lake City, Platt says he realized a driver who picked him up was Rapp, but the priest didn’t appear to recognize him and ignored his requests to be dropped off.

“Jim explained to Guy that he was gay,” the suit alleges. “He drove Guy to City Creek Canyon under threat with a knife. Jim stopped the car and proceeded to sexually assault Guy again.”

Platt says it was the last time he saw Rapp.

Platt said he is coming forward publicly to remind people of the widespread damage sexual abuse can cause. Abusers often claim multiple victims, he said, traumatizing them in ways that lead many to take their own lives or fatally overdose.

“It’s got to be stopped,” Platt said.

Platt is now helping others with similar experiences. He’s a peer support specialist for those recovering from addiction and plans to pursue a college degree so he can work as a counselor in that field.

He believes Rapp belongs in prison, but says he has forgiven the former priest.

“I hope that he has come in contact with the true God that he supposedly represented, and has been willing and able to make amends himself,” Platt said.