Legal Group Argues Church Shouldn't Pay Punitive Damages in Lawsuits

The Associated Press [Tucson, Arizona]
September 1, 2004

TUCSON - A public-interest legal group has intervened in a sexual-abuse lawsuit involving an Arizona priest, claiming the Catholic Church shouldn't have to pay punitive damages.

The Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a friend of the court brief this month in Pima County Superior Court against a plaintiff who claims he was sexually abused by a priest as an altar boy in the 1960s.

The suit was filed last year and names both the dioceses of Phoenix and Tucson as defendants. It seeks an unspecified amount of money, including punitive damages.

The embattled Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson is considering whether to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as a way of meeting financial costs associated with several pending lawsuits alleging clergy sexual abuse of children.

The Becket Fund says that for courts to force religious groups to pay punitive damages to a plaintiff would be a crushing and unconstitutional liability.

But critics claim the Becket Fund's attempt to remove possible punitive damages is part of a bigger agenda to protect assets of powerful religious groups such as the Catholic Church.

The Becket Fund could possibly intervene in Catholic church abuse cases in "every state and federal court" where plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages from religious groups, said Jared N. Leland, the fund's legal counsel.


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