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A RICO civil case can reap big rewards... if you can prove it

Late last week, a local attorney announced the filing of a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo which includes a RICO civil action, or Racketeer Influenced Criminal Organizations Act. Another local attorney not involved with the litigation likens the use of a RICO action to "an H-bomb."

Late last week, attorney Kevin Stocker filed a lawsuit filed against the Diocese of Buffalo on behalf of nearly two dozen plaintiffs. It includes a RICO action, arguing that the Diocese - as well as attorneys and accountants who advised them - willingly protected its assets and even grew them, at the expense of child sexual abuse victims.

RICO is best known as the act used by federal prosecutors against organized criminal operations like the mafia. But Joseph Sedita, senior counsel at Hodgson Russ in Buffalo, says any institutions can be subject to RICO charges.

"The statute says a RICO violation occurs when there are certain predicate acts and when an enterprise, which may otherwise be completely legitimate, is controlled through a pattern of racketeering activity," Sedita said. "The racketeering activity doesn't have to be strong-arm extortion or murder. It can be any one of a number of predicate criminal acts."

Sedita did not comment on attorney Kevin Stocker's lawsuit, filed on behalf of 23 plaintiffs shortly after the one-year "look back" period opened for past sexual abuse claims under the Child Victims Act. But Sedita likened the RICO action to "an H-bomb," speaking in more general terms of what it can do for a client. If successfully argued, a plaintiff is entitled to treble damages.

The challenge, Sedita told WBFO, is proving damages were caused by the alleged RICO violation and not some other "independent tortious civil wrong."

"In order for a private individual to maintain an action, that individual has to be able to prove that there is direct proximate causation between the activity complained of and that individual's injury," he said.

In a news release released last week to announce a lawsuit filed on behalf of 23 plaintiffs, Stocker explained the reasoning behind its RICO strategy: "Our lawsuit includes causes of action for sexual abuse of children and fraud in an attempt to hide assets. Our suit will attempt to pierce the corporate veil of these created shell entities of Catholic corporations attempting to shield assets. We have also included a civil RICO action to address the long-time criminal behavior of an organization in order to gain profits. We will seek justice from the law firms and accounting firms that have advised and guided the Catholic Diocese in these illegal activities and participated in its decades of coverups and fraudulently hiding of assets."

In response to WBFO's request for comment, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Buffalo wrote: "The Diocese received a document from the media which is filled with procedural deficiencies and irresponsible claims against parties, some unnamed, who have no connection to the Child Victims Act.  If the claim is pursued, the Diocese and all related entities will respond appropriately."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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