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Massachusetts 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 Springfield Diocese.

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.

"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 be announced.

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.

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