judge considers ruling on liability of church
September 25, 2003
By BILL ZAJAC Staff Writer-The Springfield Republican
SPRINGFIELD - Lawyers for the Roman Catholic church and alleged
sexual abuse victims squared off in court yesterday over whether
charitable immunity laws protected the church from five lawsuits.
Whether or not the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield
is protected from liability in incidents of clergy sexual
abuse before September 1971 could be decided next week by
Hampden Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney.
But the judge, whose decisions opened the floodgate on thousands
of church documents in the Boston Archdiocese sexual abuse
scandal, could also postpone a decision until the completion
of all evidence gathering in related clergy sexual abuse cases.
Sweeney, a Cathedral High School graduate who was Springfield's
first female city solicitor, presided over an hourlong hearing
in which the diocese argued that five clergy sexual abuse
suits should be dismissed because the alleged abuse took place
before September 1971. Up until that time churches and other
charitable institutions were shielded from liability through
a state law.
But John J. Stobierski, a lawyer for 21 people who have filed
lawsuits against the diocese alleging clergy sexual abuse,
said the decision should be postponed because pending rulings
could produce documents that show diocesan officials were
not acting charitably in their supervision of priests or their
protection of children.
He told Sweeney about the Rev. James J. Scahill's recent
allegation that the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, the bishop
of the diocese, said one of his predecessors destroyed documents
pertinent to possible clergy sexual abuse. The bishop denies
making the statement.
Diocesan lawyer John J. Egan argued that it doesn't matter
what evidence is produced. He stated that past court rulings
indicate charitable immunity was absolute.
Sweeney is the fourth superior court judge to become involved
in pending civil suits alleging clergy sexual abuse in the
Since November, Judge Peter A. Velis has been reviewing thousands
of pages of diocesan documents before deciding whether they
should be released to a Greenfield man suing the diocese for
allegedly being abused by the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne. It
is not known when Velis will make his ruling.
Velis is also considering an effort by Stobierski and The
Republican to release impounded court documents from the Danny
Croteau murder investigation. Lavigne was the only suspect
when the Springfield altar boy was murdered in 1972, but blood
tests later failed to link him to the crime conclusively.
The investigation remains active, according to Hampden District
Attorney William M. Bennett.
After the hearing, Stobierski expressed frustration at his
more than yearlong effort to gain access to evidence from
"The diocese has resisted discovery (production of evidence)
on everything I have tried to do," Stobierski said.
Also pending is Hampden Superior Court Judge Lawrence B.
Wernick's decision regarding a diocesan motion to have all
clergy sexual abuse suits dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
Wernick listened in April to arguments regarding a separation
of church and state. It is not known when a decision will
In Boston earlier this year, Sweeney rejected a similar effort
by the Archdiocese of Boston to have clergy sexual abuse suits
dismissed. She rejected arguments that the First Amendment
guarantee of freedom of religion gives church officials immunity
from civil suits.
At least two alleged sexual abuse victims whose suits are
targeted by the charitable immunity case were at the hearing.
"It was a lot of legalese, but I now understand nothing
was decided," said Norman D. LaPolice, an adjunct professor
at Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I.
LaPolice has filed suit accusing the Rev. E. Karl Huller
of abusing him while LaPolice was a student at Cathedral High
School and Huller was a guidance counselor there in the 1960s.
Huller is deceased.
Copyright 2003 MassLive.com. All Rights Reserved.