Judge Rejects Boston Archdiocese's Motion to Dismiss 500 Suits in Abuse

By Pam Belluck
NY Times
February 20, 2003

OSTON, Feb. 19 - A judge today rejected a motion filed by the Archdiocese of Boston that sought to dismiss nearly 500 civil lawsuits filed in the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

The judge, Constance M. Sweeney of Superior Court, dismissed the archdiocese's argument that the First Amendment's separation between church and state prevents courts from getting involved in how the church supervises priests.

Clearing the way for the lawsuit to proceed, Judge Sweeney wrote that affirming the archdiocese would "have the practical effect of granting to hierarchical church representatives unqualified immunity from secular legal redress, regardless of how negligent, reckless or intention the representatives' supervision over their subordinates might be and regardless of the severity of the injuries suffered by claimants."

Also today, the archdiocese filed a motion seeking to delay civil lawsuits for months and possibly years in the case of one of the most notorious priests in the scandal, the Rev. Paul Shanley. The church's motion asks Judge Sweeney to postpone the suits, filed by two young men who say they were repeatedly molested as boys by Father Shanley, until a criminal case charging the priest with raping those boys and two others goes to trial.

The motion also seeks to delay the civil suits until a state grand jury finishes investigating the archdiocese's role in the abuse scandal. And it says that the archdiocese will seek to dismiss the Shanley lawsuits on the grounds that the plaintiffs, Greg Ford and Paul Busa, filed them after the statute of limitations had expired.

Plaintiffs' lawyers today heralded Judge Sweeney's ruling, but criticized the motion filed by the archdiocese.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents more than half of the plaintiffs in the 500 lawsuits, said the judge had removed a "roadblock."

Mr. MacLeish, whose clients include Mr. Ford and Mr. Busa, said that the motion to delay the lawsuits was "a classic stall tactic," adding, "It just reflects more insensitivity toward victims of sexual abuse."

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Donna M. Morrissey, issued a statement saying that the church's lawyers had not yet decided whether to appeal the judge's ruling on the First Amendment case.

In that ruling the judge did agree to dismiss a small number of claims made in several lawsuits. Those claims accused archdiocesan officials of negligence for having ordained or failed to remove a priest from the priesthood, which Judge Sweeney ruled was a purely church-related matter. The judge also dismissed claims contained in a handful of lawsuits that asserted that since a priest is a priest every minute of the day, his supervisors can be held liable for every one of his actions. The rest of the claims in those lawsuits were allowed to go forward.

The archdiocese motion seeking to delay the lawsuits says that "there is a well-recognized tension between civil and criminal actions proceeding simultaneously against the same persons."

An archdiocese spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, said the archdiocese had filed today's motion in response to a motion from the plaintiffs that asked the judge to set an expedited trial date of April in the Ford lawsuit and a trial date of June in the Busa one.

Father Coyne said the church's lawyers believed that the lawsuits "should go through the normal course of events and not move forward in a speedy way."

The legal actions come as the archdiocese and plaintiffs' lawyers appeared to be making progress toward a negotiated settlement of many of the lawsuits. The two sides have agreed to ask Judge Sweeney for a 90-day moratorium on action in the lawsuits to allow the lawyers to engage full-time in settlement talks. That agreement would exclude the Ford and Busa suits, but include the hundreds of others.

Church officials, including Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim head of the archdiocese, have repeatedly said they hope a negotiated settlement can be reached. They have suggested that many of the legal tactics they have employed are geared to showing the archdiocese's insurance companies that they are taking every step to defend the church, something they say is necessary before the insurance companies could agree to cover part of a settlement.

But Mr. MacLeish said today that, notwithstanding the moratorium agreement, "there are no meaningful settlement talks now, and there will be no meaningful settlement talks until the people who are in charge of the Archdiocese of Boston, not their lawyers, but Bishop Lennon or whomever is running the archdiocese, sits down with victims and attorneys and talks about substantive changes."

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