|MA Court: Church
Protected by Charitable Immunity
Thursday, August 19, 2004
By BILL ZAJAC - Springfield Republican
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
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
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
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.