Diocese Challenges 5 Abuse Suits

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
September 16, 2003

SPRINGFIELD - The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is seeking to have five clergy sexual abuse cases dismissed on the basis of a state law that provides charitable immunity to churches in abuse prior to September 1971.

The motion for dismissal, which diocesan lawyers filed last week, will be heard in Hampden Superior Court by Judge Constance M. Sweeney Sept. 24.

Sweeney is the judge who earlier this year refused to dismiss more than 400 clergy sex abuse lawsuits against the Boston Archdiocese, rejecting arguments that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion gives church officials immunity from civil suits.

Springfield diocesan lawyers also are trying to have sex abuse cases - about 24 in all - dismissed on First Amendment grounds. A ruling is expected in the fall by Superior Judge Lawrence B. Wernick, who listened to arguments in April.

On the motion that Sweeney will hear next week, diocesan lawyers cite a state law that provided charitable immunity until September 1971, when the law was changed.

"The diocese strongly prefers to resolve all claims amicably on a case-by-case basis, however, if amicable settlements are not reached, our legal advisors are obligated to preserve all valid defenses," said a statement from the diocese yesterday.

Other institutions, such as hospitals and colleges, have invoked charitable immunity.

Boston archdiocesan lawyers never sought the dismissal of any cases based on the charitable immunity law.

A plaintiff in one of the Springfield diocesan cases expressed dismay at the legal strategy in the wake of the recent settlement of 500 or so sex abuse cases in Boston for $85 million.

"In Boston they settled. In the Diocese of Providence they settled. In Worcester they settled. I don't understand why the Springfield Diocese is pursuing this. They are Catholics and Christians, but they are not acting like it," said Norman D. LaPolice.

LaPolice is a Salve Regina adjunct professor who filed suit against the diocese, stating that he was molested by the now-deceased Rev. E. Karl Huller when LaPolice was a student at Cathedral High School in Springfield.

A Springfield diocesan lawyer said the diocese has pursued a more aggressive legal strategy than the Boston Archdiocese because archdiocesan church leaders had knowledge of abusive clergy for many more years than diocesan leaders here.

"The difference is knowledge," said Philip J. Callan, a Springfield lawyer who represents the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

Callan and diocesan officials said they were first informed of an accusation of abuse against the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne in 1986.

However, an affidavit that accompanies the charitable immunity motion suggests that then Bishop Christopher Weldon knew Lavigne was accused of molesting children as early as the 1960s. The diocese settled 17 sex abuse suits against Lavigne in the 1990s and at least 14 suits are pending.

Maurice E. DeMontigny, a lay diocesan leader and a confidant of the late Weldon when he was bishop, said multiple accusations against Lavigne were made to the Rev. Thomas P. Griffin, who was curate at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Springfield when Lavigne served there.

The affidavit also states that the Rev. Leo E. O'Neil, who would later become an auxiliary bishop, was also aware of accusations against Lavigne at least by the early 1970s when O'Neil served at St. Catherine's parish.

"You won't be seeing any boys coming out of my room," O'Neil said to DeMontigny, according to the affidavit. O'Neil died in 1997.

The diocese also is seeking dismissal of cases filed by Susan F. Morris of East Longmeadow, Lawrence O. Opitz of Springfield, David A. Galeziowski of West Springfield and Adam Doe, a pseudonym used by a man who said he spent almost 20 years in mental facilities because of the abuse. Doe said he was abused by Huller. The other three plaintiffs said they were abused by Lavigne.


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