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Judge Won't Dismiss 400 Clergy Suits

February 20, 2003|From Associated Press

BOSTON — A judge refused to dismiss more than 400 sexual abuse lawsuits Wednesday against the Boston Archdiocese, rejecting arguments that the Constitution bars the courts from interfering with church operations.

Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney's ruling clears the way for the lawsuits to move forward. However, settlement talks are underway.

The lawsuits allege church officials were negligent in their supervision of priests accused of molesting children.

Church lawyers had argued that the court does not have jurisdiction over cases that involve the relationship between a church supervisor and a priest because that involves church policy, which is protected by the 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

But the judge disputed that Wednesday, saying: "The cases ... do not lure the court into involving itself in church doctrine, faith, internal organization or discipline."

Sweeney made two exceptions: She dismissed claims that church supervisors were negligent in their ordination of a priest or their failure to remove a priest from the priesthood, saying those were "purely ecclesiastical matters" not subject to judicial scrutiny. She also rejected arguments that because a priest is a priest 24 hours a day, church supervisors can be held liable for anything he does.

Father Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said church lawyers would not comment on the decision until they had time to review it. "In all of this, we are still committed to a full, equitable and just resolution for all cases against the archdiocese," Coyne said.

Attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., whose firm represents 270 alleged victims, said the decision "recognizes that the church -- merely by its status as a religious institution -- is not above and beyond the law."

Church documents released over the last year show church supervisors shuffled accused priests from parish to parish.

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