The Church As Citizen

St. Louis Post-Dispatch [St. Louis MO]
February 23, 2003

Acourt decision in Massachusetts last week could - and should - have important implications in dozens of lawsuits filed in Missouri by people claiming abuse by Roman Catholic priests.

Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney said that the doctrine of separation of church and state does not give the church immunity from civil lawsuits. The Archdiocese of Boston had claimed that the First Amendment protected it from hundreds of lawsuits filed by victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Most of the suits charged that the Archdiocese had been negligent in supervising its priests. The Archdiocese argued that the relationship between a bishop and his priests is a church matter not subject to civil review. Judge Sweeney ruled that while the question of who becomes a priest is a religious matter, the priesthood does not exempt the church from laws that apply to all citizens.

Missouri law suggests just the opposite. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that judges and juries should not question how the church supervises its clergy. The parents of Michael Gibson sued the Rev. Michael Brewer and the Diocese of Kansas City, charging that the diocese had failed to properly supervise Father Brewer, who the Gibsons said had fondled their son in 1990.

Patrick W. Noaker, who has filed dozens of priest abuse cases on behalf of Missouri plaintiffs, said that church officials in Missouri have used the Gibson case as an excuse to not change policies. "Their attitude is, 'Why should we spend money when you can't sue us anyway?' " Mr. Noaker said.

He said he will challenge the Gibson ruling, either in the state or federal courts. "The First Amendment does not bar the application of valid, neutral laws to the church," he said. "I can't believe that the Missouri Supreme Court ever anticipated that the church would say it doesn't have to be a good citizen, too."

What's good for Massachusetts is good for Missouri, too. Church officials here should show good faith by rendering unto Caesar the responsibilities of citizenship.


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