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MA Court: Church Protected by Charitable Immunity

Thursday, August 19, 2004
By BILL ZAJAC - Springfield Republican
wzajac@repub.com

SPRINGFIELD - A Hampden Superior Court judge's ruling that churches are protected by charitable immunity limiting judgments to $20,000 in clergy sexual abuse cases has cast doubt over whether the Catholic church will continue to negotiate multimillion dollar settlements with alleged victims.

Hampden Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini ruled last week to uphold a charitable immunity statute in a case involving a Hampden woman who was suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester for abuse she alleges occurred while she was a minor.

"It is well established that charitable immunity and charitable limitation of damages apply to cases involving negligent hiring and retention," wrote Agostini, who was assigned to the consolidated clergy sexual abuse suits filed against the Springfield diocese during the past two years.

Jane Martin contended the Worcester diocese was negligent in hiring the Rev. Robert E. Kelley, who she said abused her as a child. Her lawyer said he plans to appeal the ruling.

The law states charitable institutions can face no liability before September 1971 and a limit of $20,000 after that date.

There may be 20 people who are interested in settling clergy sex abuse claims against the Springfield diocese and 200 against the Boston archdiocese, according to lawyers. In 2003, the Boston archdiocese agreed to pay $85 million to settle more than 500 lawsuits by those who said they had been abused by priests.

The Springfield diocese yesterday issued a two-sentence response to the ruling that gave no indication of whether it would invoke the statute on pending or future claims of sexual abuse.

"The diocese is aware of last week's ruling. Our attorneys are reviewing it, and upon completion of that review will advise the diocese," read the diocese's statement.

John J. Stobierski, the Greenfield lawyer whose 45 clients have just settled clergy abuse claims with the diocese for an estimated $7.5 million, said the ruling will not impact his clients' agreement.

"It remains to be seen the impact of the ruling on pending or future claims," Stobierski said.

In settling his clients' claims, Stobierski said the diocese agreed to waive legal technicalities to settle the claims on a moral basis.

"Hopefully, the diocese would not treat anyone else differently," Stobierski said.

Springfield lawyer Daniel M. Kelly, who represents one client with a pending claim against the diocese, said he wasn't surprised at the ruling.

"We kind of expected it," said Kelly yesterday from a Nantucket golf course.

"I don't anticipate the ruling being a bar to an amicable settlement to claims," Kelly said.

Kelly's client, whom he would not identify, was allegedly abused after 1971, Kelly said.

Kelly doesn't anticipate a $20,000 ceiling to a settlement.

Stobierski's clients will receive a minimum settlement of $80,000 and there is no ceiling on the maximum.

Four arbitrators are deciding this week individual settlement amounts based upon the amount of abuse, the kind of abuse and the effect of it on claimants' lives.

Springfield lawyer Michael P. Ascher, who represents Martin, said he intends to appeal Agostini's decision.

"I argued that a jury should decide whether the church acted outside the scope of charitable immunity," Ascher said.

Meanwhile, the one claimant who intended to opt out of the $7.5 million settlement has decided to join the other 45 claimants in the agreement.

Francis Babeu, who two weeks ago announced he was the only one of Stobierski's clients opting out of the settlement, has decided to accept it.

He said the death last week of one of the claimants with whom he was close since childhood influenced his decision.

"I didn't learn about the (charitable immunity) decision until after I made up my mind to rejoin the settlement," said Babeu, 39, a U.S. Marine Corps captain.

Although Babeu is joining other claimants several weeks after the deadline to opt out, he said he understood all parties agreed to let him back into the agreement.

"When Shawn (M. Dobbert) died last week, I realized how short and precious life is. I want to move forward with my life," said Babeu yesterday from Waco, Texas.

Dobbert, 36, was found dead in his North Adams apartment Aug. 10. Police have not stated a cause of death pending autopsy results, which are not due for at least another week.

"We were altar boys together. I saw (then parish pastor Richard R.) Lavigne slap Shawn around. Shawn was timid and relied on others to help him through things," Babeu said.

Babeu and Dobbert said they were sexually abused by Lavigne, now a defrocked priest.

Copyright 2004 MassLive.com.

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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