- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

BOSTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston weighed Thursday whether to appeal a judge's refusal to dismiss hundreds of clergy sex-abuse civil cases.

The judge rejected the church's argument the lawsuits violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state doctrine, saying that to accept that position would amount to giving the church total immunity from civil lawsuits.

"If the court were to recognize the defendants' sweeping church autonomy doctrine," Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney wrote, "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."

Her 26-page ruling Wednesday means that some 500 civil lawsuits against the church can go forward.

Several attorneys are engaged in talks with the church in attempts to settle suits, while a couple of cases are close to going to trial.

Sweeney said the suits do not violate the separation of church and state because they do not involve religious belief, but how church leaders supervised priests accused of molesting children.

The suits argue that supervising bishops were negligent because they moved known abusive priests from parish to parish rather than remove them from access to children.

In arguing for dismissal at a hearing last month, the church's attorney said alleged victims could not claim negligence because the special relationship between bishops and priests was intrinsically religious and protected by the Constitution.

Attorney Jeffrey A. Newman, representing alleged victims, hailed Sweeney's ruling. He told the Boston Globe the church had tried to argue it was "totally immune from state law."

Newman said he expected the church to appeal.

Another attorney for alleged victims, Mitchell Garabedian, told the Globe the ruling "empowered" the plaintiffs to continue their litigation "so that the truth may be shown."

In a statement Wednesday night, church spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey said the archdiocese is reviewing the decision and "no decisions have been made regarding an appeal."

The church has 30 days to appeal.

She said the archdiocese "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."

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim head of the archdiocese, has said the motion to dismiss the civil suits was made to prove to the church's insurers it was putting up a vigorous defense.





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