Ruling Hurt Victims of Church Abuses

By Paul Kendrick
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
April 2, 2003

Former Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen recently stated that had a case where he ruled that the Roman Catholic Church was protected from civil suit by the First Amendment (Swanson v. Roman Catholic Bishop) involved child sexual abuse, his opinion might have been different.

With all due respect to Wathen's view, the case before the court had nothing to do with whether or not the plaintiff was an adult or a child. The issue before the court was whether Bishop Joseph Gerry could be held liable for negligently supervising a member of his clergy. In a 4-2 vote, the court ruled out the possibility of any legal claim against the bishop, regardless of the particular facts of the case.

My objection to Wathen's recent appointment to head a diocesan review board advising the bishop on sex abuse cases is very specific. Victims of clergy sexual abuse have a legitimate concern about being betrayed by people who are supposed to be looking out for them.

That's one of the damages of sexual abuse, the feeling of betrayal and conspiracy. Victims know firsthand a child's desolation and broken trust wrought by abusing priests. They know, too, the added insult that "good Catholics" today inflict by failing to become engaged and rising up en masse to demand redress.

In the majority opinion, however, Justice Wathen wrote: ". . . imposing a secular duty of supervision on the church and enforcing the duty through civil liability would restrict its freedom to interact with its clergy in the manner deemed proper by ecclesiastical authorities and would not serve a societal interest sufficient to overcome the religious freedoms inhibited."

These words are haunting in light of the scandal that has ripped through my church. The cover-up of criminal acts of sexual abuse of children by Catholic bishops is at the core of the cancer in my church.

In April 2002, the attorney who represented Bishop Gerry in several sex abuse cases stated, "The ordinary rules of employee supervision shouldn't apply to churches. Denominations base their practices on their religious teachings and churches decide how to train or discipline ministers based on their interpretations of specific passages from the Bible."

Again, haunting words. Bishop Gerry continues to fight to maintain his immunity from prosecution in civil lawsuits, including litigation that could prove he knew that one of his priests was committing criminal acts of sexual abuse against a child.

In June 2002, Bishop Gerry was dismissed as a defendant by a Superior Court justice in the civil suit of Fortin v. Melville. Michael Fortin alleged that Rev. Raymond Melville sexually abused him over a seven-year period, beginning in 1985, when Fortin was 13.

Fortin also alleged that Bishop Gerry knew there were sexual abuse complaints about Melville during the time in which Fortin says he was being molested, and Gerry allowed Melville to continue serving as a priest. Why was Gerry dismissed from the case? The ruling in Swanson protected the bishop from liability. The victim's charge against him was silenced.

Victims must believe that they can trust the members of the review board to advocate on their behalf for justice and accountability. Victims have spent decades being ignored, not believed, shamed, admonished and ostracized for bringing the truth of their sexual abuse to their bishops.

These same victims have been silenced with secret cash settlements and confidentiality agreements. They watched as their bishops continued to transfer abusive priests, placing more children in harm's way. Yet, the courts of Maine have barred any such victims here from pursuing full justice.

Wathen's ruling suggests to any such victims that it is OK with him that they are not entitled to a full measure of justice in the legal system. It is OK with him that bishops cannot be held legally accountable for the complacency, arrogance and carelessness that permitted horrific crimes of sexual abuse of children.

It's all about perception. The perception that counts is in the eyes and ears of the victims.

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