The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Power of archdiocese with Law, judge says

By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 7/13/2002

A Suffolk Superior Court judge yesterday rebuffed the Archdiocese of Boston's claim that it could not fund a multimillion-dollar settlement for 86 victims of John J. Geoghan because the archdiocesan Finance Council refused to fund it, declaring that the council is not legally recognized under state law.

Instead, Judge Constance M. Sweeney found, the state law that established the archdiocese in the late 1800s vests the power to make agreements in the archbishop. In March, Cardinal Bernard F. Law endorsed the tentative agreement. And in May, he said he would have funded it if his hand-picked Finance Council had not overruled him.

Speaking from the bench, Sweeney said, ''This court does not believe that what the Finance Council did or did not do ... has anything to do with the recommendation of the [archdiocese]. ... I am, at this point, of the position that it does not make a difference from a legal point of view ... what [Law's] motivation was for signing or not signing the contract.''

The judge's finding narrowed the scope of the hearing scheduled for later this month in which she will decide whether the archdiocese must uphold the $15 million to $30 million settlement with the alleged victims of Geoghan, a defrocked priest and convicted child molester. And it is likely to buttress the view of some legal scholars that by tentatively agreeing to the settlement before the council vote, Law and his lawyers may have bound the Church to go forward with the costly settlement.

''It shows the judge's intention to stay away from the constitutional issues involving the separation of chuch and state,'' said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for 86 alleged victims of Geoghan.

The judge's comments were made during a hearing on whether the archdiocese had to turn over internal documents from the Finance Council. Lawyers for the archdiocese argued that such an order would violate the constitutional separation of church and state by plumbing the internal workings of the church.

Sweeney said she would rule that the archdiocese didn't have to turn over the documents - but only if church lawyers agreed not to introduce evidence from the Finance Council at the hearing on the settlement's validity. After the lawyers for the archdiocese agreed, Sweeney made her comments about the Finance Council's failure to usurp the power of the archbishop under civil law.

It wasn't the first time Sweeney suggested she wouldn't consider the Finance Council when deciding if the tentative settlement was binding. In May, Sweeney said her initial interpretation of the laws, without having seen the church canon, seemed to indicate that within an archdiocese business is conducted with an archbishop, not a Finance Council.

After the Finance Council voted in May to rescind the agreement that church officials had publicly embraced, Law told lawyers during a deposition, ''It was my intent to have that deal go through. I was committed to that settlement.''

The willingness of the lawyers for the archdiocese to step away from the church's sole public defense for rejecting the agreement - the vote of the Finance Council - was notable, since Law's sole reason for abandoning the settlement in May was the vote of the council. The archdiocese has said that under canon law the Finance Council has to approve any payments that exceed $1 million.

''This may signal a shift in the church's position,'' said Michael Avery, a Suffolk University Law School professor and expert on contract law. ''If they're not going to argue that there was no deal'' because the finance committee did not approve it, ''then they must have some other theory for why there was no authorization for this settlement.''

Lawyers for the church say they plan to argue that the agreement isn't enforceable because it wasn't signed by all the parties. Yesterday, Sweeney also ordered lawyers for the archdiocese to turn over a copy of the settlement agreement, which was signed by three people, to the lawyers for the alleged victims.

During depositions this week, William H. Gordon, a lawyer who works with Garabedian, said lawyers for the archdiocese declined to name the three people who had signed. The final agreement would have been signed by 17 defendants, including Law. The 86 plaintiffs signed the agreement.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/13/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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