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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 band.''

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 matters.

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 can.''

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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests