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Archdiocese turns to Appeals Court

Seeks higher jurisdiction in abuse crisis

By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 2/26/2003

The Archdiocese of Boston, which last week lost its argument that hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits against the church should be dismissed because they violate the constitutional separation of church and state, yesterday asked that a higher court be allowed to review the issue.

Lawyers for the church asked Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney to report the case to the state Appeals Court. Once that is done, lawyers for the archdiocese said, they would ask the Supreme Judicial Court to take the case directly. In the meantime, the archdiocese requested that the lawsuits be put on hold.

The decision to appeal Sweeney's decision angered lawyers for alleged victims, who suggested that the church was hypocritical in its assurances that it wants to reach a settlement with the alleged victims.

''On one hand, you've got the archdiocese publicly saying that they want to settle the claims,'' said lawyer Jeffrey A. Newman, whose firm represents about 250 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. ''On the other hand, they're asking the court to delay all 400 cases.''

The church's request came on the same day that Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the former archbishop of Boston, testified before a grand jury investigating criminal wrongdoing in the clergy sexual abuse scandal. More than 500 alleged victims of abuse by clergy have brought legal claims against church officials, arguing that the bishops were negligent in moving abusive priests from parish to parish.

Last week, lawyers for both sides requested a 90-day ''timeout'' to allow them time to settle many of the cases out of court. The timeout wouldn't apply to two cases filed by alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley that are scheduled to go to trial in the spring. Sweeney granted the request for the timeout on Monday. The archdiocese's legal tactics, Newman said, made lawyers for alleged victims doubt the church's willingness to settle the cases out of court.

''They're in it for the long battle,'' he said. ''The strong indication is that we're not going to have a resolution, and these cases are all going to be tried.''

Newman doubted that the Appeals Court would take the case, arguing that such a move would be unusual while lawsuits are pending.

In a statement released yesterday, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said church officials were committed to settling the cases out of court.

''While pursuing this appellate course, the archdiocese remains committed to the victims for the wrongdoing of clergy,'' the statement said. ''Regardless of the outcome of the case, we remain steadfastly committed to assisting the victims, and we continue to seek the most equitable and expeditious resolution for all.''

Another lawyer who represents more than 100 alleged sexual abuse victims said he was also angered by the archdiocese request.

''My clients have been intensely damaged by these perpetrators, and they do not need to be re-victimized,'' said lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who is not asking to participate in the 90-day timeout.

In the motion, lawyers for the church argued that the precise issue that Sweeney considered -- whether the court has the right to hear the cases -- has never been ruled on in Massachusetts.

Last week, Sweeney ruled that the lawsuits should proceed toward trial because the court does not need to delve into religious principles, such as church doctrine, to decide the cases. The church's argument that it is constitutionally protected from the lawsuits, Sweeney wrote, would grant church officials complete immunity from civil law.

Sweeney ruled that accepting the church's argument would render traditional legal analyses of the First Amendment meaningless and would leave alleged victims of abuse with no legal redress in civil court.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 2/26/2003.
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