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Church liability for predator priests fought at top Massachusetts court

In the state where the worldwide scandal first erupted, the justices seemed to think a diocese should face its day in court.

BOSTON (CN) — The Supreme Court of Massachusetts, the state at the epicenter of a sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the Catholic Church for the past two decades, seemed eager Monday to shred one diocese's immunity defense against claims from a former altar boy.

“If priests are raping children, the civil courts can hold the bishop liable; I don’t have any problem with that,” Justice Scott Kafker declared this morning — an unusually predictive statement for oral arguments where the justices are normally loath to declare positions on the merits so openly.

Court records shield the name of the accuser in this case, John Doe, who says he was raped in the 1960s by Christopher Weldon, the once-beloved bishop of Springfield who built 11 churches as well as a convent and a hospital, started a Hispanic outreach program, and took part in the Second Vatican Council.

Doe brought suit for the abuse itself and separately accused the church of having covered up for Weldon and delayed finding the bishop responsible in an internal proceeding starting in 2014. The church eventually appointed a retired judge to investigate the bishop who died in 1982. After that judge deemed Doe's claims credible. Weldon’s remains were exhumed and moved to another state, his pictures were taken down from Catholic facilities, and a health care center named after him was given a different name.

Priest-abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church usually end quietly. The Boston archdiocese has to date paid out more than $94 million in settlements, and the Springfield diocese has spent almost $15 million doing the same since 1992, with insurance covering $8.5 million of that sum.

In Doe’s case, however, the diocese chose to fight, arguing that it has “charitable immunity” under the common law prior to 1971, when the state legislature allowed charities to be sued with a $20,000 cap on liability.

“Did that immunity apply to intentional torts?” Justice David Lowy asked Monday, grilling the church's attorney, Michael McDonough of Egan, Flanagan & Cohen in Springfield.

McDonough argued that the diocese wasn’t liable unless the bishop was doing something that furthered its religious or charitable purposes, and raping children was “well afield” of that.

But “that means for all of the sexual abuse of kids … the bishop has no responsibility,” Kafker replied, sounding astonished. “If every single priest was doing it, the bishop would have no responsibility.”

Kafker then asked if under the current law the diocese’s liability would be limited to $20,000.

“That’s what the legislature enacted,” McDonough answered.

“For all of this activity, that’s what the legislature intended? That’s a harsh judgment on the legislature,” Kafker said.

Attorney Michael McDonough is pictured here at oral arguments Monday, April 4, 2022, before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. He said letting an alleged victim of priestly abuse sue over internal church disciplinary procedures would mean that the court was “trading its judicial robes for those of a pontiff." (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

Kafker also voiced discomfort that the Springfield diocese is a “corporation sole,” meaning that it’s a nonprofit with a single director who is the bishop himself.

“The bishop is one of the people accused of raping the kids. I find it really difficult to separate the bishop from the corporation when it’s the bishop doing something wrong,” Kafker said. “It’s sophistry to distinguish those two.”

Priest abuse has been an inflammatory subject in Massachusetts since 2002 when the Boston Globe first uncovered a history of church coverups. The following year the state attorney general found that at least 789 — and probably more than 1,000 — children had been abused. The Boston scandal was the subject of the 2015 film "Spotlight," which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

While none of the justices said anything suggesting that they thought the church was immune from suit for the rapes, there was a lively debate over whether the religious-autonomy doctrine under the First Amendment precludes courts from holding the church liable for its own internal discipline process.

Doing so would mean that the court was “trading its judicial robes for those of a pontiff,” McDonough argued.

Lowy suggested that the church couldn’t simply hide behind the doctrine to eliminate any suit for defamation. He suggested that some of the church’s actions weren’t true religious debates but rather “just trying to get a good sound bite into the paper.”

Justice Elspeth Cypher also seemed somewhat dubious and even fumbled several times over the name of the religious-autonomy doctrine, finally referring to it dismissively as the “religious-whatever” doctrine.

But interestingly, Kafker seemed to think that the internal church process was off-limits. When Doe’s attorney, Nancy Pelletier of Robinson Donovan in Springfield, got up to argue, Kafker used up her entire time debating her on the subject.

A final issue was whether the court should be hearing the case at all. The diocese appealed after a lower court denied its motion to dismiss on immunity and First Amendment grounds. The court could decide that the appeal was premature, as Pelletier claims, and send the case back for trial before ruling on the substantive issues.

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