Decision Restricts Liability of Church in Sex Abuse Cases

By Joe Lambe
Kansas City Star
August 20, 1997

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that people can sue churches for alleged sexual abuse by clergy, but only under narrow guidelines.

The two Kansas City rulings define a balance between religious freedom and victim rights that will shape cases statewide. Opinions written by Chief Justice Duane Benton order the two cases back for trial but on only one count. Churches can be liable only if supervisors knew of the sexual abuse and did nothing to stop it.

Negligence and other counts, Benton wrote, would intrude on religious freedom or did not fit the facts. Some legal experts said the rulings do not give plaintiffs as much latitude as in many other states. Two states do not allow such lawsuits at all. Similar cases have cost churches hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide. Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City lawyer who represents plaintiffs in similar Missouri lawsuits, said, "The activity is going to have to be pretty darned egregious" for them to win. At least now they get a chance, said David Clohessy, St. Louis director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Courts nationwide are becoming more sensitive to abuse victims," he said. "This is one step down that path." The two cases against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph started toward the Supreme Court after a Jackson County Circuit Court judge dismissed them in 1994. An appeals court reinstated some counts last year.

James Tierney, attorney for the diocese on both cases, praised the Supreme Court Tuesday for protecting freedom of religion. The new standard, he said, is tough enough that few plaintiffs will prevail in such cases.

Sly James, attorney for one of the alleged victims, said the ruling harms children.

"Harmful activities by clergy," he said, "should not be treated any differently than harmful activities by a plumber." James' client, Michael Gibson, filed the lawsuit against the diocese, contending the Rev. Michael Brewer molested Gibson in 1990, when the he was 17 years old.

Nicolas Gray filed the second case. He contends the Rev. Thomas J. Ward had sex with him for about 10 years, starting when he was a confused 14-year-old boy.

Both former priests maintain they are innocent.

CORRECTION-DATE: August 23, 1997

CORRECTION: An article Wednesday about a lawsuit involving the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph described the Rev. Thomas Ward as a former priest. Ward is retired but still performs some religious ceremonies such as weddings.


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