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  Diocese: Church Alleges Conflict
The Plaintiffs' Lawyer Filed a Motion to Have Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney Rule on First Amendment Issues

By Bill Zajac
Springfield Union-News [Springfield MA]
February 12, 2003

SPRINGFIELD - The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield plans to seek dismissal of all sexual abuse lawsuits it faces, saying that the First Amendment prevents civil courts from interfering with the relationship between church leaders and their priests.

If upheld, the motions would eventually throw out 19 suits against the Springfield diocese. The diocese settled 17 sex-abuse suits for $1.4 million in 1994.

Meanwhile, John J. Stobierski of Greenfield, the lawyer for 14 of the plaintiffs, has requested that the motions be heard by Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who is weighing a similar argument brought by the Archdiocese of Boston in 450 similar sex-abuse suits.

Sweeney, a Springfield native, is expected to issue a ruling within the next week or so.

A diocesan statement yesterday indicated that there was legal precedent for its defense.

"Notwithstanding the heartbreak of sexual abuse, any governmental oversight, including through the courts, of religious activities raises serious issues under the Federal and Massachusetts Constitutions," it said. "Of course, there is no protection, criminal or civil, for any abuser. In 1995, a similar suit involving another religious denomination was dismissed on constitutional grounds by Superior Court.

"The motion filed by the diocese seeks only the same constitutional protections."

Diocesan lawyers Michael K. Callan and Philip J. Callan Sr. are filing for the dismissal of a suit filed by North Adams resident Shawn M. Dobbert last July charging the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne of Chicopee with sexual abuse. The Springfield diocese is named as one of the defendants in the suit.

"We will eventually seek dismissal of all cases," said Michael Callan. "We selected that suit because it is further along in the discovery process."

Their 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 ... "

The diocesan motion cites a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states, "The First Amendment prohibits civil courts from intervening in disputes concerning religious doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government."

The ruling specifically addresses the relationship between a church and its priests.

"The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose," it states. "Matters touching this must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern."

Stobierski disagrees.

"The First Amendment doesn't reach so far as to prevent a church's internal policies and procedures from providing a basis to award damages to those who have been victimized," he said. "Our laws do not protect the practice of religion to that extent."

Stobierski filed the motion to have Sweeney rule on the First Amendment motions because of the similarity in the legal issues here and the Archdiocese of Boston.

It could "avoid duplication of effort and the potential for conflicting rulings," the motion stated.

Callan opposes Sweeney hearing the motions, citing differences in the number of cases as well as the fact that some of the suits against the Springfield diocese also involve religious orders such as the Stigmatines.

In those cases, boundaries regarding the supervisory responsibilities of priests are not clear.

Also, Boston church officials claimed they were pursuing the First Amendment strategy to actually speed up settlement cases.

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston, has said that insurance companies would abandon the church if it failed to explore all possible legal defenses.

Callan refused to comment when asked if diocesan lawyers were pursuing the First Amendment strategy to speed up settlements.

"It has always been our intention to litigate these cases and bring them to trial," he said, adding that no efforts have been made to settle cases.

"There has been some general talk, but nothing specific," he said. "It is always initiated from the plaintiffs' side."

Stobierski disagrees.

"I have sent two specific demand letters quite some time ago requesting settlement of cases, and I have received no response from the diocese other than that they were referring the letters on to the insurance carriers," he said. "The plaintiffs would welcome opportunity to settle cases."

Stobierski also filed a motion to consolidate the 14 sex-abuse suits he has filed against the diocese.

"As time goes on and more and more victims come forward, it makes sense to have them all taken care of in one form," he added.

Bill Zajac can be reached at wzajac@union-news.com

 
 

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