A long wait for a trial just got shorter for a former altar boy who survived clergy abuse

The Berkshire Eagle [Pittsfield MA]

September 19, 2021

By Larry Parnass

A 69-year-old plaintiff shouldn’t be kept waiting.

After hearing that plea from an attorney, a Springfield judge ruled last week that the former Chicopee altar boy raped by a once-celebrated bishop deserves to have his civil lawsuit heard with as little delay as possible.

Until the decision came Wednesday from Judge Karen L. Goodwin, the plaintiff, identified only as John Doe, expected to have to wait for a year or more as defendants pursued an appeal of an earlier ruling.

Goodwin scribbled the word “Allowed” on a court document submitted by the plaintiff’s attorney, Nancy Frankel Pelletier, and set a status conference for 3:30 p.m. Oct. 21 in Hampden Superior Court, at which lawyers will discuss the trial’s timing.

Her decision is another setback to lawyers for the Springfield Diocese, who claimed in court filings that their clients, including the diocese itself, could not be sued because of charitable immunity under the law. They also claimed that the First Amendment bars courts like this one from deciding church disputes “involving interpretation of ecclesiastical standards.”

Carolee McGrath, the diocese’s spokeswoman, has said the church does not comment on pending civil litigation.

Goodwin rejected both of those arguments and set a date for the lawsuit, filed in February, to move to trial.

“Parties shall submit jointly or separately if they cannot agree [to] a proposed schedule,” the judge wrote.

Goodwin’s decision means attorneys for the defendants will have to present a defense in Hampden Superior Court even as they prepare to argue, at the appellate level, that Goodwin erred in June in dismissing their earlier motion to toss out the entire complaint.

The plaintiff says he was raped by former Bishop Christopher J. Weldon in the early 1960s — and then defamed and neglected by local church officials after he came forward as an adult to report his abuse. The suit claims that the diocese and eight other defendants, including former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, engaged in a cover-up and civil conspiracy against the plaintiff.

The man’s allegations against Weldon were found in 2020 to be credible, after an independent inquiry by retired Judge Peter A. Velis, a review ordered by Rozanski.

The lawsuit alleges that people who work or worked for the diocese, including its longtime attorney, John. J. Egan, played roles in suppressing the plaintiff’s abuse by Weldon and two other members of the clergy in the 1960s, starting when he was a child of 9.

Inside the decision

Goodwin’s decision rejected claims of immunity by the diocese.

“The case law interpreting the common law charitable immunity cannot fairly be construed to give charitable organizations carte blanche immunity from suit simply because their articles of incorporation evidence charitable purposes,” the judge wrote.

Instead, she writes, immunity applies to “negligence committed in the course of activities carried on to accomplish charitable activities.”

Goodwin concludes that counts in the plaintiff’s complaint include alleged intentional injury.

“Common law charitable immunity would not apply to those claims,” she wrote.

The assaults involving Weldon started when the plaintiff served as an altar boy and occurred at St. Anne Parish in Chicopee and other places, including Camp Holy Cross in Goshen, according to the lawsuit.

“Plaintiff was subjected to heinous acts of abuse perpetrated upon him, including severe anal penetration by multiple perpetrators including Weldon, [Clarence] Forand, and [Edward George] Authier,” the suit states.

All three of those clergy members, now deceased, are listed by the diocese as having sexually assaulted children. Authier’s name was added after the lawsuit was filed.

“Plaintiff was taken to a rectory bedroom at St. Anne Parish and various other locations where they and others violently raped and assaulted him,” the suit claims.

In a long footnote, Goodwin says no appellate court in Massachusetts “has held that a charity enjoys immunity from suit for the types of claims of intentional misconduct causing personal injuries such as those alleged here ….”

Goodwin denied the defense motion to stay court proceedings until the appeal is decided, writing that “the defendants have not met their burden in moving for a stay ….”

Along with Rozanski and Egan, the complaint names as defendants Patricia McManamy, Monsignor Christopher Connelly, Jeffrey Trant, John Hale, Kevin Murphy and Mark Dupont. It also names the legal entity known as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, a Corporation Sole.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.