High Court Says Allegations against Jackson Catholic Diocese Can Go to Trial

WLOX [Mississippi]
May 5, 2005

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the First Amendment does not prohibit lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Jackson over allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Three brothers filed a $48 million lawsuit in Hinds County Circuit Court in 2002. They claimed they were abused by a priest more than 30 years ago.

The trial had been on hold while the Supreme Court considered the diocese's motion for dismissal.

The diocese argued that the separation of church and state made the church autonomous. It also said certain church documents were privileged.

The brothers argued the diocese was trying to hide behind the First Amendment to avoid civil action over priest sexual abuse.

The issue before the Supreme Court was not whether the diocese was liable for alleged abuse. The issues dealt with whether the lawsuit should be dismissed and what diocese documents should be provided to the plaintiffs.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd in 2003 ruled that the First Amendment didn't protect the diocese from litigation.

The diocese appealed to the state Supreme Court, saying the lawsuit infringes on its constitutional rights.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kenneth, Thomas and Francis Morrison. The mother of the men, Dorothy Morrison of Madison, also is a plaintiff.

The men say they were abused by the Rev. George Broussard when they were children in the 1970s.

"Neither the Doctrine of Church Autonomy nor jurisdictional arguments shall serve to prevent the Morrisons from pursuing their causes of action in our civil courts," wrote Justice Jess Dickinson for the majority of the court.

"The civil and criminal laws which protect children from abuse and allow those who are abused to be compensated for the damage they suffer, are neutral, generally applicable laws.

"We find no credibility in the argument that immunity from liability for damages caused by pedophiles should be grounded in religious faith, doctrine, practice or belief, regardless of any theory under which that argument is advanced," Dickinson said.

Named as defendants were the diocese; former Diocese Bishop William Houck; Broussard, the former priest who allegedly committed the sexual abuse while active in the priesthood; Cardinal Bernard Law, who was vicar general in Jackson at the time of the alleged abuse; and others.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Jim Smith said the claims against the diocese should be dismissed.

"Here, each of the tortious acts alleged in this case can be summed up in two words: clergy malpractice," Smith said.

Smith said the First Amendment Doctrine of Church Autonomy "precludes the circuit court from asserting jurisdiction over claims which arise from the manner in which the Catholic Diocese selected, appointed, disciplined, and supervised its clergy."

Smith said the Morrisons wanted the courts take control over how a Catholic bishop "selects, assigns, supervises, and disciplines his priest, as well as what he does or does not say about the priest to the parishioners."

Smith said the courts have no jurisdiction over the "relationship between a bishop and his priest, which inevitably requires the court to delve into issues of faith, church policy, and the theological doctrines which define that relationship."

Dickinson said Mississippi courts should not get involved in disputes of scriptural interpretation or denial of membership in a particular congregation.

"But we reject the notion that the First Amendment provides, or was intended to provide, blanket civil immunity to churches for violation of recognized standards of conduct which results in reasonably foreseeable harm," he said.

Dickinson said Thursday's decision applied only to this case. He said other cases would have to be decided one by one.

The Supreme Court gave the diocese 30 days to review documents requested by the Morrisons and to specify which ones it believes are privileged and should not be released to the plaintiffs.

The justices said the circuit judge erred in issuing a blanket demand for all documents sought by the Morrisons without giving the diocese a chance to review them.


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