Pa. Judge Rejects Freedom of Religion Argument in Church Abuse Suits

Associated Press, carried in News Observer [Hollidaysburg PA]
May 5, 2004

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. (AP) - A judge Wednesday rejected a Roman Catholic diocese's claim that the constitutional separation of church and state bars it from being sued for allegedly failing to stop sexually abusive priests.

The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese had argued that judicial second-guessing of how bishops hire, fire, assign or discipline priests would infringe on the church's freedom of religion.

Blair County Judge Hiram Carpenter disagreed, ruling that lawsuits filed by alleged victims of sexual abuse involve "not an attack on the freedom to believe, but rather an attack on the freedom to act contrary to the laws of the commonwealth."

The rural diocese about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh has been buffeted by 13 lawsuits from 17 people, most alleging that they were molested by priests in the 1970s and 1980s.

Erie Anderson, a lawyer for the diocese, declined to comment, saying he hadn't seen the ruling. Richard Serbin, the attorney representing most of the plaintiffs, said the ruling allows the case to move forward.

The diocese and Serbin announced in March that they were trying to negotiate a settlement.

The suits do not name the priests because the statute of limitations has expired. Instead, they name the diocese, Bishop Joseph Adamec and his predecessor, Bishop James Hogan, alleging that church officials knew about abuse allegations against priests but did too little to prevent future abuse.

Adamec has maintained that church officials followed church guidelines that were in place when the allegations originally surfaced and have corrected the problems of the past.

Several dioceses around the country have used freedom of religion arguments to try to get lawsuits thrown out or block the release of church files. Such arguments failed in the Boston and Louisville, Ky., dioceses.


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