Judge Refuses to Make Church Atone for the Sins of Its Priest

By Patricia Manson
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
June 7, 1995

Saying that civil courts may not intrude in church matters, a federal judge has rejected an attempt to force a religious order to pay for the sins of its priest.

U.S. District Judge George Howard Jr. ruled that The Marist Society of the Washington Province Inc. is not responsible for a $ 1.5 million judgment against a priest who sexually abused an 8-year-old girl.

In an order released Tuesday, Howard said he was "genuinely sympathetic" to the plight of the now-adult victim.

But the judge said he would be violating the First Amendment if he ruled that the order agreed to pay the Rev. Timothy Sugrue's debts in return for the vow of poverty Sugrue made when he joined the Marists.

Such a ruling would require an interpretation of the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church and the laws of the Marists, Howard said.

The victim cannot show that there was an implied contract "without intrusion into ecclesiastical matters," Howard wrote in a 15-page order. "She simply cannot divorce the 'vow of poverty' from its religious application."

Father William Rowland, provincial supervisor of the Washington, D.C.-based Marists, was not available for comment Tuesday.

Morgan E. "Chip" Welch of Little Rock, an attorney for the victim, vowed to appeal the ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis.

"I will continue to pursue this until there's no court left I can turn to or there's no breath left in my body," Welch said. While praising Howard's fairness, he added, "I think he's wrong and I hope the appellate court will agree with me."

Howard issued his order in a second lawsuit the victim filed Nov. 23, 1993, three weeks after a jury ordered Sugrue to pay the woman $ 1,506,325 for sexually abusing her when she was a child. With interest, the judgment now totals about $ 1,576,000. No trial was held on the second suit.

The abuse occurred in 1977 and 1978 at Blytheville Air Force Base, where Sugrue was a chaplain and the girl's father was an officer.

The jury in the first lawsuit determined that Sugrue was guilty of the civil offenses of outrage and assault and battery against the woman. It also determined that Sugrue was not acting within the scope of his employment when he molested the girl and that The Marist Society was not responsible for the priest's actions.

Sugrue did not attend the trial. The Marist Society, however, paid for his defense lawyers and consultants.

The society also has paid more than $ 70,000 for psychiatric treatment for Sugrue, according to documents in a related case.

The woman filed her second suit because Sugrue could not pay the judgment and The Marist Society would not pay it, Welch said.

He said he believes his client was the first victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest to attempt to collect damages as the beneficiary of a contract between the priest and his religious order.

Howard's ruling this week in the second suit was just the latest setback for the victim, who is now 24 years old and lives in Birmingham, Ala.

Last month, a federal judge in Washington ruled in favor of The Marist Society in a garnishment action the victim filed in an attempt to collect the judgment. The judge said the woman failed to show an employment contract existed between the order and Sugrue.

Welch said his client filed the garnishment action in the face of enormous medical bills. The woman is now confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke earlier this year during surgery to remove a brain tumor, Welch said.


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