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Judge Rejects Boston Archdiocese's Request To Dismiss Sex Abuse Lawsuits

Feb 19, 2003 | AP

A judge refused to dismiss more than 400 sex abuse lawsuits involving the Boston archdiocese Wednesday, rejecting the church's argument that allowing them would violate the First Amendment.

Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney's ruling allows the lawsuits, accusing the archdiocese of ignoring allegations of clergy abuse, to go forward.

Attorneys from both sides have said they hope the lawsuits can be settled out of court.

Church lawyers had argued that the court does not have jurisdiction over cases that involve the relationship between a church supervisor and a priest because that involves church policy, which is protected by the First Amendment.

The judge wrote Wednesday that what is at issue in the lawsuits is not an internal church dispute, but claims against church officials alleging they were negligent in their supervision of priests they knew had been accused of sexually abusing children.

"The cases do not lure the court into involving itself in church doctrine, faith, internal organization or discipline," Sweeney wrote.

Church documents released publicly over the past year show that church supervisors shuffled accused priests from parish to parish instead of keeping them out of positions where they had contact with children.

The scandal rocked the nation's fourth-largest diocese and led to lawsuits across the country alleging sexual abuse by clergy. More than 300 priests have since been suspended or resigned.

Sweeney made two exceptions in her ruling Wednesday: She agreed to dismiss claims that church supervisors were negligent in their ordination of a priest or their failure to remove a priest from the priesthood, saying those were "purely ecclesiastical matters" not subject to judicial scrutiny. She also rejected arguments that because a priest is a priest 24 hours a day, church supervisors can be held liable for anything he does.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said church officials had no immediate comment Wednesday.

The archdiocese has said the legal challenge was necessary to satisfy its insurance carriers that it had done everything possible to defend itself. Church officials hope that at least a portion of any settlement costs, estimated at millions of dollars, will be covered by insurance.

Lawyers for alleged victims said church officials were trying to avoid being held responsible and argued that the separation of church and state does not protect the conduct of church supervisors or priests.

"This recognizes that the church merely by its status as a religious institution is not above and beyond the law," said attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., whose firm represents 270 alleged victims.

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