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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

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Address to Massachusetts Judiciary Committee Regarding Legislation to Alter the State's Charitable Immunity Doctrine

October 9, 2003

TO: Joint Committee on the Judiciary

My name is Phil Saviano. In 1997, I established the New England Chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to the committee about House Hill # 1894, and express my viewpoint about what Charitable Immunity has done to children here in Massachusetts.

For the past 18 months, news reporters from all over the world have been asking me, "Why is it that so many priests have molested children in the Boston Archdiocese?"

The answer is, because they could get away with it.

Unwittingly, the legislature in Massachusetts created an environment where some 300 child-molesting priests (in the Boston area alone, never mind Worcester and Springfield) were able to sexually assault children and adolescents for decades. And both the molesters and the bishops who protected them had little fear of consequences. Very few of them will ever face criminal charges, as was explained to us by the recent Attorney General's Report. And if someone dared to find the courage to sue, the Church was protected from financial liability, as well.

When this anachronistic law was enacted here back in 1876, its original purpose was to shield non-profits, particularly hospitals, from frivolous lawsuits. But in modern times, the law provided an advantage to the Catholic Church that few lawmakers would have ever predicted. It became one of the most powerful weapons in the Church's massive cover-up of the abuse.

Here is how it worked: If a victim had a solid case, went to civil trial, laid out all the facts in a public arena, and then the jury ruled in favor of the victim and awarded damages, the most the church would have to pay would be $20,000.

It's amazing that an obscure law from the 1800's could both protect the church's finances, and perhaps more importantly, stifle the victim's lawyers. Why would any Massachusetts lawyer working on a contingency fee, take a clergy abuse case to trial if he knew that there would be no financial compensation for his efforts? The lawyer could get more money, for much less work, by settling out of court. And that's what they did, over and over again. The advantage of that, from the Church's point of view, is that there was no public record of the abuse.

There's a reason why although hundreds of kids were molested by Catholic priests in the Boston Archdiocese, the general public never knew there was a problem. It's because throughout all those years, not one of the roughly 1,000 clergy abuse victims in the Boston archdiocese has ever gone to trial. Historically, cases were settled out of court, quietly, and for paltry sums the church could easily afford.

From the church's point of view, that is the beauty of Charitable Immunity. The secret was kept, the price was low. Where was the incentive for the Church to clean up its act?

From the victim's point of view, myself included, that is just another example of how the legislature has failed children in the State of Massachusetts.

We can't change history, but we can learn from our failures and move ahead. House Bill 1894 is a rare opportunity to close this loophole. I'm not asking that you do away entirely with this doctrine. Just make an exception in cases of sexual abuse. You want to protect charities from financial liability? Fine. But don't let Charitable Immunity be used as a shield for criminal activity.

It's time we stopped protecting the rapists and child molesters.

Phil Saviano
SNAP New England

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests