Springfield Diocese Asks Judge to Dismiss Sex Abuse Suit

By Adam Gorlick
Associated Press, carried by Boston Globe
April 18, 2003

Springfield MA - Lawyers for the Springfield Diocese argued Friday that church officials who supervised admitted pedophile priest Richard Lavigne are shielded from a sex abuse lawsuit by the First Amendment.

In a motion to dismiss a civil lawsuit accusing church officials of failing to protect a boy from Lavigne, attorney Jack Egan said the constitutional separation of church and state prohibits the courts from considering the case.

"The government ought not to be mucking around in areas where they have no jurisdiction," Egan told Judge Lawrence Wernick in Hampden Superior Court.

Egan does not represent Lavigne, and is not arguing that the lawsuit against the priest be dismissed.

John Stobierski, the lawyer representing 20 people who have filed suits alleging sexual abuse either by Lavigne or other priests in the Springfield Diocese, said the church must be held liable for not doing a better job supervising the clerics.

"They're contending that they are above the law for negligence, that the law that applies to all of us does not apply to them," Stobierski said.

In February, the Boston Archdiocese lost its attempt to dismiss more than 400 clergy sex abuse lawsuits based on First Amendment grounds. Similar arguments have been made in church abuse lawsuits around the country, either seeking to dismiss lawsuits or prevent the release of records.

Although the Springfield Diocese has been named in 20 sex abuse cases 15 of which involve Lavigne they only argued to have one dismissed on Friday. Egan said he will likely wait for Wernick's ruling, which is expected in a few months, before deciding whether to seek dismissal of other cases.

The suit argued Friday was filed by 35-year-old Shawn Dobbert of North Adams. Dobbert says Lavigne molested him countless times between 1976 and 1986 and threatened to kill him if he ever reported the abuse.

The suit also names former Bishop Joseph Maguire, who supervised Lavigne, and the Rev. Robert Thrasher, who allegedly saw Lavigne abuse another boy. Thrasher has repeatedly denied that charge.

"Their negligence was that they put Richard Lavigne in a position where he had access to children, knowing that he may or could abuse them," Stobierski said. "This case can be decided on secular principles. We don't want to go where the First Amendment bars us."

But Egan said the court would be violating the separation of church and state if it scrutinized the relationship between Lavigne and his superiors. He said the bishop's oversight of priests in his diocese is a matter or religious not secular law.

"No court or jury can constitutionally decide what a reasonably prudent bishop should have done," Egan said. "There is always the proper and understandable request for ... the deepest pockets that can be found. But it cannot be allowed to trump constitutional restraint."

Lavigne, who lives in Chicopee, was charged in 1991 with five counts of sexual abuse. He pleaded guilty a year later to molesting two boys and the other charges were dropped. He was sentenced to a rehabilitation center for several months and placed on 10 years probation.

In the 1990s, the diocese settled lawsuits for $1.4 million with 17 men who accused Lavigne of abusing them.

The diocese has started the process of defrocking Lavigne.


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