Diocese Says Constitution Protects It in Abuse Lawsuit

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
April 19, 2003

Springfield - The government has no legal right to interfere with a bishop supervising a priest, and a lawsuit related to that issue should be dismissed, a lawyer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield argued in court yesterday.

Lawyer John J. Egan said in Hampden Superior Court yesterday that the First Amendment protects the "intrinsically religious" relationship between a bishop, diocese and priest, and that civil courts have no jurisdiction in the matter.

"The government ought not to be mucking around in areas where it has no jurisdiction," Egan said.

His argument is based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ..."

Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, who represents 20 plaintiffs in sex abuse lawsuits against the Springfield Diocese, argued that the church has a responsibility to ensure the safety of members of society from sexually abusive clergy.

"The First Amendment doesn't give them unfettered right to act on beliefs if they are violating civil law," said Stobierski.

Judge Lawrence B. Wernick said he will take the case under advisement and that it would be months before he issues a ruling.

The diocese wants dismissed a case filed by Shawn M. Dobbert, 35, North Adams, that accuses the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne of Chicopee of sexually abusing him for 10 years from 1976 to 1986.

If diocesan lawyers are successful in getting the case dismissed, they will use the same legal strategy to rid themselves of the other pending lawsuits.

As proceedings started, Egan stated that he was not representing Lavigne in the matter.

Lavigne is named as a defendant in the case. Also named are Egan's clients: the diocese; the Most Rev. Joseph F. Maguire, who was bishop at the time Dobbert said the abuse occurred, and the Rev. Robert W. Thrasher, who, according to the lawsuit, witnessed Lavigne abusing a child but did nothing, allowing Lavigne to proceed to molest Dobbert.

Dobbert was not at court yesterday, but four others who have pending suits were, including Thomas M. Martin of Springfield. Martin said he believes the church and bishops should not be given special privileges regarding the supervision of priests.

"The church hired these priests and they broke a special trust that many parents had in the church that their children would be safe when in the presence of priests. It didn't happen," said the 41-year-old Martin, who, in a suit filed a year ago, said he was abused by Lavigne between the ages of 8 and 14.

"The church should be treated like any other employer in regards to supervision of their workers," Martin said.

In February, Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ruled against the Archdiocese of Boston when it used a similar legal strategy to try to have 400 lawsuits against it dismissed.

In arguments, Egan and Stobierski each cited Sweeney's decision among many court decisions regarding church autonomy doctrine protected by the First Amendment.

Egan characterized Sweeney's decision as flawed.


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