Church: Abuse Suit against Diocese Violates Church-State Separation

NEPA News [Altoona_Johnstown PA]
March 27, 2003

A Roman Catholic diocese sued for allegedly failing to properly respond to accusations that a priest molested three boys more than 17 years ago says the lawsuit violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Attorneys for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, based about 85 miles east of Pittsburgh, say courts have consistently ruled that government can't regulate how the church deals with clergy accused of misconduct.

"The right to practice one's belief and worship as one chooses is so deep a root of our constitutional culture that a court, even one with the best of intentions, can be no more than a clumsy intruder" in such cases, church attorneys said in a motion filed Monday asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

In the lawsuit filed last month, Brian Gergely, 33, of Ebensburg, Kevin Hoover, 31, of Pittsburgh, and a 39-year-old man not identified said then-Monsignor Francis McCaa fondled them through their clothes while they were altar boys at Holy Name Church in Ebensburg between 1975 and 1985.

The men said the sexual abuse took place in the church's sacristy, where sacred vestments and vessels are kept. Gergely said McCaa fondled him in a confessional as he sat on the priest's lap.

The men are suing the diocese and Bishop Joseph Adamec, who took office in 1987, and his predecessor, Bishop James Hogan, who headed the diocese when the alleged abuse took place.

Their attorney, Richard Serbin, has said church officials were wrong in not contacting authorities about McCaa, who resigned in 1985 and has since been barred from public ministry.

The men didn't sue McCaa because Pennsylvania has a two-year statute of limitations on abuse allegations. McCaa's whereabouts could not be immediately determined Thursday.

Serbin argues, however, that the diocese can still be sued on the grounds that church officials mishandled and misrepresented how they dealt with abuse allegations against McCaa and other diocesan priests until at least last year.

When he announced the lawsuit last month, Serbin said his clients began to blame the diocese only after Adamec said in March 2002 that he had suspended priests accused of pedophilia from the ministry more than a decade ago.

The diocese has said it did what was proper under laws and church guidelines in effect at the time the allegations surfaced.

In their response to the suit this week, church attorneys said Serbin is trying to get around the two-year statute of limitations by turning the case into a "clergy malpractice" action that takes issue with how the diocese has disciplined its priests.

The church attorneys cited cases in Wisconsin and Maine in arguing that courts can not second-guess how bishops hire, fire, assign or discipline priests.

In 1995, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Archdiocese in which a woman said a priest at her high school used his position to coerce her into a sexual relationship in the early 1960s. The woman said the archdiocese was negligent in its hiring or training of the priest.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.

In 1997, the Maine Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that the state's Roman Catholic bishop was immune from being sued for allegedly negligent supervision of a priest who had an affair with a female parishioner he was counseling. The Maine court said enforcing a secular duty of employee supervision on the church would violate First Amendment religious freedoms.

The attorneys for the Altoona diocese said such lawsuits can have "a chilling or coercive effect upon ... a church's constitutionally guaranteed liberty to determine the means best suited to accomplish its divine mission."

But Serbin said some courts have ruled that those constitutional protections don't matter when sex abuse of children is at issue.

"Courts have ruled that when you're dealing with the subject of sexual molestation of children, that a priest or bishop cannot hide behind their religion to break the laws of society," Serbin said. "This is a crime when you molest children, and that has nothing to do with religion."

On the Net: Altoona-Johnstown Diocese:

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests:


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