Clergy-Abuse Suits Sent to State Court
Federal Judge Accuses Lawyers of 'Forum-Shopping'

By Karen Abbott
Rocky Mountain News [Colorado]
February 4, 2006,1299,DRMN_15_4441296,00.html

A federal judge sent clergy-abuse lawsuits filed by 24 people against the Archdiocese of Denver back to state court Friday and accused both sides of "forum-shopping."

Colorado U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock rejected arguments by the archdiocese that the lawsuits should proceed in federal court because the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion.

The archdiocese's attorney, Charles Goldberg, said the plaintiffs' claims address relationships between the church and its ministers, between the church and its parishioners, internal church communications and church governance - all matters, he said, that in the past have been held "sacrosanct" and not subject to government interference.

Plaintiffs' attorney Adam Horowitz argued that the First Amendment does not exempt any religious organization from liability for sexual assaults on children.

Horowitz said the plaintiffs' claims aren't about special religious matters but about whether priests assaulted children and whether church officials negligently hired the priests, failed to supervise them properly, breached their duty to the children and conspired to cover up what allegedly happened by transferring priests from parish to parish.

Babcock agreed with Horowitz and sent the lawsuits back to state court, where they originally were filed. The archdiocese and other defendants had moved them to federal court, but Babcock said they don't legally belong there.

The judge accused all the lawyers of trying to have the lawsuits proceed in the court where legal precedents are most favorable to their side. That's called "forum-shopping" in the legal world, and the term isn't laudatory.

"The Colorado Supreme Court established precedent very favorable to your side in these cases," Babcock said to Horowitz. "That's really why you want to go back there anyway."

"Isn't forum-shopping going on here this afternoon on both sides?" Babcock asked - and when the lawyers looked embarrassed, shook their heads and mumbled negatively, demanded, "What do you mean it's not forum-shopping?"

"The precedents for the defendants are more favorable in the federal court here, and the precedents for the plaintiffs are more favorable in the state courts," he said. "When all is said and done, that's the reason for the place of filing in the first place, the removal to this court and the reason you want it to go back to the state court."

The lawsuits were filed last year against the archdiocese, three parishes and former priest Harold White. The plaintiffs allege they were sexually assaulted as children.


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