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Can Lawsuits Dismantle Church?

May 28, 2002 | USA Today

America's legal system is shifting into high gear to punish the Catholic Church for the sexual misdeeds of its priests through multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

What first caught the public's eye as a criminal trial of an abusive priest has become a snowballing mass of civil lawsuits by victims similar to suits brought against asbestos companies, big tobacco and fen-phen manufacturers. It now seems inevitable that jury awards and settlements will soar to the point that dioceses will go bankrupt and church property will be sold to pay these judgments. The news last week that Chicago Cardinal Francis George may sell his stately residence in part to help pay for sexual abuse settlements makes it clear that this process is underway.

Cigarettes and salvation

But before the courts move in for the kill, we ought to ask whether a legal system devised to punish and deter evildoing corporations was ever meant to bring a religious institution to its knees. Should the Catholic Church really be treated the same way, in the eyes of the law, as Philip Morris?

Even asking the question will be seen by some as making excuses for the church. I don't intend that. The actions of abusive priests are inexcusable, as are the actions of the higher-ups who moved bad priests from parish to parish. It is easy to understand why abuse victims would want to be compensated under this country's uniquely generous civil justice system.

But the Catholic Church is not the same as a company. For starters, the First Amendment treats religious institutions differently, barring any law ''prohibiting the free exercise'' of religion. A legal regime that shutters churches may violate that command, taken literally.

Think also of the money a church takes in, the funds that these lawsuits seek as compensation for abuse victims. It is easy to be cynical about money-hungry churches and televangelists. But from the point of view of donors -- those of us who put a few dollars in the collection plate every Sunday -- that money is meant to support the church's mission, its good works, its power to redeem, or any one of many other religious causes.

When we donate to a church, we are not buying a pack of cigarettes or a Ford Pinto. Those worldly purchases are made with the full knowledge that part of what we pay constitutes the manufacturer's profit margin. Firms that do wrong -- commit torts, as lawyers say -- can pay their victims through those profits or by raising the price of their products.

But, as leading tort law expert Victor Schwartz asks rhetorically, ''What is a church supposed to do? It can't raise the price of Bibles.''

Fewer services

Instead, a church's insurance costs will rise astronomically. Soon, it will start shutting down services and selling property.

Those services also distinguish churches from corporations. Society increasingly relies on religious institutions for social services, not to mention schools. Companies provide valuable jobs, of course, but bankrupting a company does not have the same social consequences as shutting down churches. For this reason, most states used to have charitable immunity laws that made it difficult to sue churches. If you broke a leg inside a church, you were out of luck. Massachusetts still has such a law on the books, and it has been invoked in the latest scandal.

Bankruptcy for the deep-pocketed Catholic Church may seem too far off to worry about. But if there is anything certain about America's tort system, it is that once it finds vulnerability, it keeps digging. New victims come forward. New causes of action are found. Already, decades-old settlements with the church are being dusted off and re-litigated in light of new information about long-serving priests. There is truly no end in sight to the litigation the church faces.

In 1964, the Supreme Court placed limits on lawsuits that threatened the existence of another institution protected by the First Amendment: the news media. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the court decided that to protect aggressive news organizations from bankruptcy, it should be difficult for public officials to win libel suits over unfavorable and even inaccurate stories. That solution does not translate easily to the crisis facing the Catholic Church; while hard-hitting journalism is an integral part of a free press, protecting abusive priests is not necessary to the free exercise of religion.

Hard time, not hard cash

But other alternatives should be examined, including some kind of compensation fund or mediation system that would modulate the financial damage to the church. It may also be wise in this instance to look mainly to the criminal justice system to punish wrongdoers, rather than civil lawsuits. Sending abusive priests and their superiors to jail targets the problem more precisely, and won't put the church out of business.

The gospel taught by the church instructs Catholics to render unto Caesar (civil society) that which is Caesar's and to reserve for God what belongs to God. The current rush to the courthouse threatens to empty church coffers of both, and that should concern Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

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