Judge Rules Church Suits Can Proceed
Archdiocese's 1st Amendment motion rejected
By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 2/20/2003
A judge yesterday rejected the argument of the Archdiocese
of Boston that hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits against the
church should be dismissed because they violate the First
Amendment's separation of church and state.
Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ruled that the
lawsuits should proceed toward trial because the cases will
not delve into religious principles, such as church doctrine,
but the handling of allegedly abusive priests by their superiors.
To accept the church's argument, Sweeney wrote, would be
akin to granting the church blanket immunity from civil lawsuits.
''If the court were to recognize the defendants' sweeping
church autonomy doctrine ... the result would be that church
representatives could exercise all the rights and privileges
the secular law affords yet not be burdened by any of the
essential civil laws that protect the safety of all members
of society, particularly children,'' she wrote.
Sweeney, whose early rulings making church files public ignited
the church sexual abuse scandal, said allowing the church's
argument would render traditional legal analyses of the First
Amendment ''meaningless'' and leave alleged victims of abuse
with no legal redress in civil court.
More than 500 alleged victims of sexual abuse by Catholic
clergy have brought legal claims against the Archdiocese of
Boston, arguing that bishops were negligent in moving abusive
priests from parish to parish. Although secular employers
can be held responsible if their employees injure others,
church lawyers had argued the relationship between church
officials and priests is much different.
Sweeney's decision ''puts the church in the same shoes as
other individuals and other corporations,'' said Jeffrey A.
Newman, a lawyer for alleged victims who had asked Sweeney
to reject the archdiocese's motion.
Although a spokeswoman for the archdiocese said that church
officials haven't decided whether to appeal Sweeney's decision
to the state Appeals Court, Newman said he expected they would.
He said he thought it was unlikely the Supreme Judicial Court,
would take the case since it doesn't often hear arguments
about cases that have not yet gone to trial.
Newman said Sweeney made clear in her decision that the church
was taking an extreme position. ''They were making the argument
that they were totally immune from state law,'' he said. ''They
were really trying to stretch the First Amendment like a rubber
But even as Sweeney's ruling removed a roadblock in the way
of a jury trial in the civil case, the church's lawyers served
notice yesterday that they will ask the judge to postpone
any civil trial until all criminal charges against the Rev.
Paul R. Shanley have been resolved.
Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for Shanley's alleged victims,
said last night he believed that if Sweeney grants the church's
request, it could indefinitely delay civil trials.
Donna M. Morrissey, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese,
said yesterday in a statement that church officials were still
reviewing Sweeney's decision. ''The Archdiocese of Boston
is committed to fulfilling its obligation to provide restitution
and outreach to victims/survivors and settle the cases in
a fair, equitable, and expeditious manner,'' the statement
said. The archdiocese has 30 days to appeal.
Lawyers on both sides, other than plaintiffs' attorney Mitchell
Garabedian, have drafted motions to extend for 90 days deadlines
for moving the lawsuits toward trial to allow more time for
settlement talks, Newman said. But the deadlines would not
be extended for two cases against Shanley, including one scheduled
to go to trial in April.
Newman said he expects the motions to be filed soon. Lawyers
for the church didn't return phone calls yesterday.
Sweeney also ruled that although alleged victims can argue
the church was negligent in supervising abusive priests, they
cannot argue it wrongly ordained or failed to laicize the
priests, since such allegations would stray into religious
Only a small number of the lawsuits raise such claims. Sweeney
said those cases can proceed on other arguments.
''Today the court issued a decision that has empowered the
plaintiffs ... and allowed the plaintiffs to continue their
litigation so that the truth may be shown,'' said Garabedian,
a lawyer for more than 100 alleged victims.
When the archdiocese filed its motion to dismiss the civil
lawsuits, church officials said the legal argument was necessary
to satisfy the church's insurance carriers that the archdiocese
was vigorously fighting the lawsuits.
The archdiocese brought in a Colorado lawyer and First Amendment
expert, L. Martin Nussbaum, to argue its case before Sweeney.
Nussbaum argued that the alleged victims could not claim that
church officials had negligently supervised the priests because
examining that relationship - between priests and their supervisors
- in civil court violates the constitutional freedom of religion.
The relationship between church officials and priests is
much different from the relationship between a secular employer
and employee, he argued.
Yesterday, alleged victims said they were pleased that Sweeney
allowed their lawsuits to proceed toward trial.
''This is my cure,'' said John J. King, an alleged victim
of the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin. ''I'll continue as long as I
Kathleen Burge can be reached at [email protected]
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/20/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.