Archdiocese Seeks Limit on Sexual Abuse Damages

By Wendy Davis
Boston Globe
March 20, 2003

The Archdiocese of Boston is arguing that the church's nonprofit status sharply curtails its financial liability in lawsuits filed by alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse, according to papers filed earlier this week in Suffolk Superior Court.

The move, although anticipated, signals the start of a potentially contentious battle about the applicability of Massachusetts' charitable immunity law, which limits damages to $20,000 a victim.

"There's half a dozen answers to why charitable immunity doesn't apply," said Carmen Durso, a lawyer who represents a number of plaintiffs. "First and foremost is that the covering up of activities of priests accused of crimes is not consistent with a charitable purpose."

Donna Morrissey, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said, "We're committed to investigating each and every allegation and in trying to do the best we can to protect children. Our attorneys have consistently not tried the cases in the media, but in the courtroom."

The church and its leaders are facing lawsuits brought by approximately 500 alleged victims of abuse by clergy. Settlement talks are underway in many of the cases, but if any lawsuits go to a jury, verdicts against the archdiocese could be limited to $20,000 per victim if the church prevails with its immunity claim.

The defense would only apply to the archdiocese, not to individual church leaders being sued.

Massachusetts' charitable immunity law has capped liability of churches and other nonprofits at $20,000 since 1969. Before then, nonprofits had absolute immunity.

The immunity laws were implemented to protect donations to charities, but some feel the laws don't make sense in an age when hospitals and other nonprofits are multimillion dollar businesses.

Suffolk University Law School professor Michael Avery said most states have abolished the laws.

Avery also noted that here, where plaintiffs are alleging that church procedures in assigning and supervising priests were faulty, it makes no sense to insulate the church from liability. "Big institutions should have quality control," he said.

The church also raised a statute of limitations defense and argued the cases should be dismissed under the First Amendment.

This story ran on page B5 of the Boston Globe on 3/20/2003.


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