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Law limits church liability to $20,000

Victims of abuse criticize statute

By Alison Bass, Globe Staff, 5/13/1992

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
ecause of a little-known and unusual state law, the victims of sexual misconduct by clergy in Massachusetts cannot win more than $20,000 in legal damages from the offender's church.

Specialists on sexual abuse, attorneys who represent abuse victims and alleged victims are highly critical of the law, saying it does not allow victims to be fully compensated for the harm done to them. They say that as a result of the law, religious denominations in Massachusetts may not have acted as aggressively as churches in other states to investigate complaints and remove clergy who sexually abuse their parishioners.

"The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has certainly had to become very proactive on this issue because of the onslaught of lawsuits against them involving sexual misconduct by their priests," said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul lawyer who has handled many such cases. "But I can't accomplish anything for clients in Massachusetts because of this charitable immunity law."

The law, which is found in few other states, applies to all nonprofit institutions, including hospitals and colleges, and limits their legal liability for any kind of negligence, including sexual abuse.

Several of the 45 people who allege they were sexually abused almost 30 years ago by a Catholic priest in the Fall River Diocese say the immunity law should be changed, if only because of the deterrent effect high jury verdicts might have.

"I don't really care about the money," said Dennis Gaboury, 40, one of the men who says he was sexually abused by Rev. James R. Porter while an altar boy in North Attleborough in the 1960s. "But of course, I haven't spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for therapy and medical expenses -- as some of the other victims have. I think the law is wrong because we all know that huge corporations -- and that includes the Catholic church -- often don't change their behavior until they get hurt financially."

However, church officials say that the spate of sexual misconduct lawsuits in recent years against the Catholic Church has nothing to do with the policies some archdioceses have recently adopted to prevent misconduct by priests. Observers say the Catholic Church has paid out damages in excess of $350 million in sexual misconduct cases since 1985.

"The church began to respond with very firm policies about the removal of priests when it began to realize, along with all of society, the breadth of the problem and the tragic harm that it inflicted," said Rev. Kenneth Doyle, a spokesman with the US Catholic Conference. "In the past, the church, along with the rest of society, tended to view the problem as society viewed alcoholism 30 or 40 years ago -- as a moral fault from which, if a person were repentent, he could recover."

Gaboury and several other alleged victims of Porter, who has since left the priesthood, claim top officials in the Fall River Diocese knew about Porter's misconduct in the 1960s and yet chose to transfer him to a parish in New Bedford, where he allegedly raped other children.

"You're dealing with a lot of angry people here," said Stephen Johnson, 43, another former altar boy who says he was raped repeatedly by Porter. "But I don't want their money. Even if there were damages, I understand that what goes along with a payment from a Catholic diocese is a gag order and we are not signing any gag orders until the Vatican changes its regulations and attitudes toward pedophiles in the church."

Johnson and a number of other alleged victims were interviewed yesterday by the Bristol County district attorney, who is conducting a formal investigation. A phone number has been set up (800-462-3218) for other alleged victims of Porter to call to obtain support and information about the case. So far, at least 45 people have alleged they were abused by Porter while he was a priest in the Fall River Diocese from 1960 to 1967.

In the meantime, Roderick MacLeish Jr., the Boston attorney representing many of the victims, acknowledges that it will be difficult to collect extensive damages from the church or from Porter, if the victims decide to sue, because of the charitable immunity law in Massachusetts.

The law dates back to 1971, when lobbying groups for nonprofit hospitals and other organizations convinced the Legislature to continue protecting nonprofit institutions from legal damages in excess of $20,000. Case law dating back to the 1800s had offered such protection, but that was overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court in 1969, according to Clyde Bergstresser, a Boston attorney who handles malpractice and sexual misconduct cases. The new law was upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court in 1989.

Massachusetts is one of only a few states that still place strict limits on liability of nonprofit organizations, according to Charles Tremper, executive director of the Nonprofits' Risk Management and Insurance Institute in Washington, D.C. South Carolina, Maryland and Texas impose similiar limits and Arkansas gives nonprofit institutions complete immunity from all legal damages.

Attorneys in this state can sue the individual physicians or medical professionals involved in malpractice claims and collect substantial damages from those individuals -- if a jury finds them liable and they have malpractice insurance.

Most clergy, however, do not carry malpractice insurance and do not have appreciable assets that can be seized in misconduct cases.

"This man Porter was a human wrecking ball and these people have really suffered as a result of what he did to them as children," said MacLeish. "Yet because of some antiquated notion that nonprofit organizations don't hurt people, they won't be compensated for their suffering."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/13/1992.
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