Thursday, May 27, 2004

A Prince George’s County Circuit judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Washington by a former church organist who says his revelations of sexual abuse at a Wheaton Catholic parish caused him to be fired.

Circuit Court Judge Steven I. Platt said that “with some reluctance” he agreed with the archdiocese that Bill Moersen, who played organ, piano and synthesizer for St. Catherine Laboure Church for almost 29 years, was a “ministerial employee” of the church and, therefore, not entitled to certain rights under state labor laws.

A secular court cannot interfere with how a church treats employees who partake of activities similar to clergy, and Mr. Moersen’s activities, he said, included “participation in a religious ritual.”

The judge said Montrose Christian School Corp. v. Walsh, a 2001 case involving a private school in Rockville, influenced his decision. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled the Baptist school can hire and fire employees based on its religious preferences, even if the employee’s duties do not involve religious functions.

However, the Montrose case involved employees who were not Baptists. Mr. Moersen is Catholic. His attorney, Jeanette Rice, said she will appeal the decision.

“Just because the church designates the position as ‘ministerial’ doesn’t change what the law says about that position,” she said.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Mr. Moersen says he revealed to the Rev. Robert G. Amey, the pastor of St. Catherine Laboure, that he had been sexually abused at the church 40 years before when he was between the ages of 11 and 16.

Father Amey offered Mr. Moersen $2,000 for counseling, but when the organist demanded more, the priest fired him, the pleadings say. Mr. Moersen sued for breach of contract, wrongful discharge and intentional infliction of severe emotional distress.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese refused comment on the case, but did say church officials reported the reputed abuser’s name to Montgomery County police. However, a police spokesman said yesterday that the department has no record of that report.

Anthony Baglivi, editor of the American Organist, the official magazine for the American Guild of Organists, said church musicians are professional musicians with legal rights.

“If he had a contract, then he is a paid employee,” Mr. Baglivi said. “Clergy are not paid employees. Organists have been successful in litigation against a church and contracts have been settled on the basis of labor laws, not whether an organist was considered as functioning as a minister of the church.”

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, said the closer one’s job description is to the core functions of the faith, the more protected it is by the U.S. Constitution. Church employees, he acknowledged, do give up some of their constitutional rights.

“What is at stake is protecting the free exercise of religion,” Mr. Haynes said. “If religious groups could not decide who led their music or worship, they could not be free to practice their faith.”

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