PRIEST SCANDAL; Lawyer questions state liability cap for church
An attorney representing more than 100 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests said yesterday he will ask the Legislature to determine if the Boston Archdiocese has wrongfully hid behind the state’s cap on liabilities for charities.
Jeffrey A. Newman said the $20,000 cap under state law was intended to protect nonprofits from having their funds depleted when sued. He said th
“The Legislature did not intend for charities to get this kind of immunity cap in cases where they knowingly harbored pedophiles and child abusers,” said Newman during a meeting with Herald reporters and editors yesterday. “Part of what the church was doing was transferring known pedophiles and pedarests pederasts to parishs around the state and the country,” country.”
Newman said he will ask lawmakers to hold hearings and use its subpoena power to have “immediate disgorgement” of all documents regarding accused priests the archdiocese has so far been reluctant to give up by request .
Newman argued that the archdiocese is a corporation set up by statute that is separate from the church’s charitable affiliates such as Catholic Charities. He also said the suits are directed at Bernard Cardinal Law as well as the accused clerics.
A spokeswoman for Law declined comment.
Paul Boynton, an expert on charitable law at Lawyers Weekly, called Newman’s approach “a creative argument.”
“There has to be enough to show they’re not acting as a charitable institution,” said Boynton. “It might fly. In light of all the circumstances a judge might be amenable to that.”
Newman said Massachusetts is one of the few states remaining that limits civil claims against charities. While some victims have received settlements under the cap, others have reaped received hundreds of thousands dollars. Some 87 victims of convicted pedophile and defrocked priest John Geoghan agreed to a settlement with the archdiocese that is estimated to be between $15 million to $30 million.
“To fall back on the immunity cap is to show disrespect to the victims and the kind of arrogance that has typified the archdiocese’s overall response to this scandal,” said Newman.
House Speaker Thomas Finneran (D-Mattapan) declined to comment , and a spokeswoman for Senate President Thomas Birmingham (D-Chelsea) said the gubernatorial candidate “does not think it is appropriate” to weigh in on the church scandal.
In the Legislature, only the Senate and House Post Audit committees have subpoena power. However, lawmakers can vote to endow subpoena power on another committee such as Judiciary or convene a special investigative committee with the ability ot to subpoena records and testimony.
Newman said legislators after a hearing can after a hearing legislators can present a question of law to ask the Supreme Judicial Court for a to determination on determine whether the church is covered by the liability cap. He also said if the answer is favorable to victims, that may open the door for previous settlements that were under the cap to might be revisited.
“If there’s been wrongdoing,” Newman said, “it’s well within the Legislature’s authority to change that.”
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