Catholic Dioceses Take Tough Stand
Many Pursuing Aggressive Legal Defense

May 20, 2003

May 20 - The nation's Roman Catholic bishops promised at the height of the clerical sex abuse crisis last year to heal the church quickly, but critics say that - when it comes to dealing with lawsuits - many dioceses are fighting as hard as ever.

THEY HAVE BEEN challenging claims from alleged victims and resisting prosecutors' demands for personnel files, arguing both violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Victims are astounded that bishops have dared mount any challenge, considering the damage some of them wrought by keeping guilty priests in parishes where they had access to children.

But church lawyers say such a reaction is unreasonable.

Dioceses are entitled - even required - to get a vigorous defense, and the financial and legal stakes involved are enormous. In the last year alone, about 1,000 people have made new claims against U.S. dioceses, said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"We have no vested interest in dragging this out, but we do have the responsibility for due diligence to figure out who has a legitimate claim and who doesn't," Chopko said. And for every diocese fighting a claim, many others are settling them swiftly and turning over documents to law enforcement, he said.

Diocesan attorneys in Los Angeles, Boston, Louisville, Ky., Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., Springfield, Mass., and elsewhere have made First Amendment arguments to either block the release of church files or convince a judge to throw out lawsuits alleging abuse. The argument failed in Boston and Louisville, and decisions are pending elsewhere.

A voluntary, 90-day freeze on 500 claims against the Boston Archdiocese expired Monday with no settlement and lawyers prepared to return to court. At least one plaintiffs' attorney wondered why the church would prolong a "public relations disaster."

Yet lawyers on both sides say many dioceses have little choice but to contest the suits. They are required under their insurance contracts to aggressively defend themselves or forgo coverage, and must raise any plausible defense theory - including invoking the statutes of limitations and freedom of religion.

"The insurance carriers who wrote policies for the dioceses had claims that far exceeded what they expected, and a lot of them are digging their heels in," said Sylvia Demarest, who helped abuse victims of former Dallas priest Rudy Kos win more than $30 million.

Marci Hamilton, a church-state expert at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law, said diocesan attorneys also are using these cases to try and set legal precedents restricting public scrutiny of church activities.

Hamilton, a critic of the bishops, said the church is attempting to expand the idea of freedom of religion so that courts and legislatures have little say over religious organizations, even ones responsible for criminal behavior.

"If there is a dispute on theology in a church, the courts will not choose what the theology means," Hamilton said. "But that has never meant that churches are not liable under civil and criminal laws."

Defense lawyers insist that dioceses accept responsibility for wrongdoing, but they won't stand by and let plaintiffs' attorneys destroy the church. Bishops see their situation as becoming increasingly difficult, as some legislatures consider extending the statutes of limitations for filing civil lawsuits.

In California, where state lawmakers have abolished the time limit on abuse lawsuits for just this year, attorneys have prepared hundreds of new claims. In Illinois, a bill extending time limits for prosecutions and civil lawsuits in sex abuse cases is awaiting the governor's signature. A similar bill is before the Missouri governor.

While outraged by the bishops' response to the crisis, David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said even parishioners who are equally incensed are unsure how dioceses should defend themselves - partly because of the financial impact on the church.

"Nobody wants to see their parochial schools close; they don't want to see their ministries to the homeless close," Clohessy said.

"There is - even among good, decent lay people - a feeling that when you go to court, if you are being adversarial, you open yourself up to those kind of tactics."

In Boston, those strategies have included a claim by archdiocesan lawyers that psychiatric records of alleged victim Gregory Ford indicate he may have been abused by his father, Rodney, not the Rev. Paul Shanley as Ford claims.

Rodney Ford denied the accusation and called the tactic "a disgrace." But Chopko said people who flinch at a forceful defense misunderstand the church's duty.

"You have to make a distinction between victim assistance and litigation," Chopko said. "It's trial by combat."


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