Catholic Indemnity Form Stirs Concern
By Kristi Ceccarossi firstname.lastname@example.org
Hampshire Gazette [Northampton MA]
August 30, 2003
Some local Catholic parents are disturbed by a form they were asked to sign this month when registering their children for religious education classes,
The form asks parents to waive the right to sue the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield and all clergy and laypeople affiliated with the church.
A local parish priest says the parents misunderstood the form and that it applies only to field trips, and a Northampton attorney says the form is similar to those used by public and private schools.
Parents say the request comes at a strained time for Catholics still rattled by recent revelations about misconduct in the church.
Chestnut Street resident Patricia Chandler said the form "seemed like a red flag" to her.
Chandler, who has two children enrolled in the CCD program at Our Lady of the Annunciation Church in Florence, declined to sign the form.
Though she has signed similar forms for her children to attend field trips with city schools, those forms have never "absolved the schools forever of any possible thing that could occur."
"I've never been asked to agree to such a blanket statement," she says.
The Rev. Father Roy Duquette of Annunciation Church said he can empathize with parents' "added anxiety" in light of recent problems in the Catholic Church.
"It wasn't meant to be some kind of blank check," Duquette said in a telephone interview Friday.
A diocesan spokesman also said the diocese has recently begun instituting background checks on anyone serving in its religious education programs.
Most Annunciation parents signed the form without question, according to Duquette. For the few who declined, Duquette said their children still may participate in CCD, though they will have to skip field trips.
"The fact that the diocese thinks this kind of request is acceptable horrifies me, especially in the wake of what's happened in the church," says Nonotuck Road resident Judith Averill. "It makes me question how much the church has learned."
Averill and Chandler were among a handful of parents who refused to sign the document.
The form was designed by the Springfield Diocese in response to requests from local parishes, according to spokesman Mark Dupont, but he said similar forms are used in dioceses around the country.
Dupont said the form is "precaution," and not a response to the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.
He said the forms are intended to address the church's legal liabilities for activities that take place outside regular CCD (confraternity of Christian doctrine) classes including field trips and service projects.
"We live in a very litigious society," Dupont said. "This was meant to bring about a standard of legal protection. It is not meant to protect the church from any form of criminal activity."
Still, the timing of the request is disconcerting to parents, including Chandler, who asked, "Why now?"
Dupont says each parish has the option of distributing the form for specific activities or at the start of the CCD term, to cover the entire program.
Annunciation officials opted to have parents sign it at CCD registration. But officials at other area churches, like St. Mary's in Northampton and St. Francis of Assisi in Belchertown did not, saying they plan to use the form for field trips only.
The form asks parents to "forever release, acquit, discharge and covenant to hold harmless the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, the school, parish ... respective agents, servants, employees and representatives, advisers, coaches, teachers, assistants, supervisors, helpers, volunteers ... from any and all actions, causes of action, claims, suits and demands ... all bodily injuries, personal injuries and property damage which the child, parent or other family member may suffer as a result of the child's participation in the program."
According to Northampton lawyer William Newman, the document would be "enforceable and binding" in court. Newman is the director of the western Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He says this type of form is regularly used for after-school activities, sports programs and field trips in public and private schools. Even so, he says from a civil liberties perspective, the request is precarious.
"It creates a difficult situation for parents who want their children safe, but also want the benefit of having them attend religious classes," said Newman.
Dupont said the Springfield Diocese regrets any confusion about the form and says it is "in no way meant to circumvent our responsibility to protect parents and children."
He said the diocese this year has begun a new process of running background checks on all teachers and volunteers in its religious education programs.
The Springfield Diocese encompasses 129 parishes in Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire counties.
The Boston Archdiocese does not issue a uniform waiver for field trips or education programs to its parishes, according to archdiocesan spokesman the Rev. Christopher Coyne. Religious education groups in the archdiocese rarely go on field trips, but when they do, each parish creates its own permission slip, Coyne said.
Gazette intern James Lowe contributed to this report. Kristi Ceccarossi can be reached at email@example.com.
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