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Spotlight Report

Claim of church rights panned

By Wendy Davis, Globe Correspondent, 3/29/2003

Lawyers for 500 alleged victims of sexual abuse by clergy argued to the state Appeals Court yesterday that religious freedom is no defense against their claims that church officials were negligent for transferring predatory priests from one parish to another without warning to parishioners.

In papers filed yesterday, plaintiffs' lawyers urged the court to reject arguments by the Archdiocese of Boston that the cases should be dismissed on First Amendment grounds. The church argued that it has the religious freedom to make decisions about priests without interference from civil courts.

Lawyers from the Boston law firm of Greenberg Traurig, which represents about half the alleged victims, argued that the church's interpretation of the law would ''create unqualified immunity for religious organizations and their hierarchy.''

David G. Thomas, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig, said in an interview, ''They're trying to create a sovereign state of the Archdiocese of Boston.''

The church asked Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney to dismiss the cases on First Amendment grounds, citing the separation between church and state. Sweeney rejected that argument last month and the archdiocese appealed the decision last week.

Victims' advocates have criticized the church for fighting to dismiss the lawsuits and claiming to want to help the victims. Church spokesman the Rev. Christopher Coyne said the church will compensate the victims even if it wins. ''The archdiocese isn't going to walk away from the victims and their families,'' Coyne said.

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 3/29/2003.
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