Constitution, Crime, Clergy: First Amendment Implications of Sexual Abuse Claims: Church Law and Discipline, Constitutional Limitations, Damage Caps and Statutes of Limitations Raise Perplexing Issues in These Cases

Article excerpt

ALLEGATIONS of sexual abuse by priests have spread from a few isolated incidents in Boston to an international controversy that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church to its foundations. The molestation claims present a complex mix of legal, psychological and philosophical problems. In evaluating and defending these cases, counsel must bear in mind certain fundamental factors that distinguish them from similar types of claims presented in the context of mass tort litigation, employment discrimination, or the day care center cases that received notoriety during the 1980s.

In particular, the lawsuits now pending against various dioceses and archdioceses for failing to prevent sexual abuse by priests differ from other similar claims against employers and corporations in four key respects:

* The discipline and lines of authority within the Catholic Church are different from those that are conventional inside American corporations.

* The church is immune from liability for certain practices that are protected under the freedom of religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

* The liability of the church is subject to statutory monetary caps in many states.

* The nature of the underlying alleged injuries presents perplexing statute of limitations issues not present in conventional cases.

A SHORT HISTORY

Sexual molestation suits against the clergy, particularly Catholic priests, first surfaced in the mid-1980s. The first to gain national attention involved a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe, who was arrested in 1983 and admitted to molesting dozens of victims in the confessional and elsewhere since the 1960s. After serving 10 years of a 20-year term, he moved to Texas, where he was soon arrested for fondling a three-year-old boy.

In Dallas, 11 former altar boys sued the Diocese of Dallas, claiming that they had been sexually abused by a former priest, Rudolph "Rudy" Kos. The victims alleged that several diocese officials, including two bishops, knew of the events but did not take appropriate action. During an 11-week trial, witnesses testified that the sexual abuse occurred at three Dallas area churches between 1981 and 1992. Kos was ultimately sent to prison for life.

In 1997, a jury awarded $120 million in damages against the Diocese of Dallas, including $18 million in punitive damages. In a 33-item questionnaire, the jury answered that the diocese had been negligent in its handling of Kos, had lied about him, had inflicted emotional distress on the plaintiffs, and had committed fraud. The jury of 10 women and two men also wrote a separate statement directed to the diocese, which the judge read from the bench, asking church officials to change the way that they investigated allegations of child abuse by priests. The claims were eventually settled for $23.4 million.

In Stockton, California, two brothers who were molested for more than a decade by a priest, Oliver Francis O'Grady, won $30 million in damages from the diocese in 1998. Four bishops were among the clergy accused of failing to disclose evidence of abuse. The claims ultimately were settled for $7.65 million.

Many of these claims have involved allegations that, rather than turning criminal priests over to law enforcement authorities, local dioceses dealt with complaints by either moving the priests to new parishes or sending them to church-operated treatment facilities, such as the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico; the St. Luke Institute near Washington, D.C.; the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut; and the Southdown Institute in Canada.

The Servants of the Paraclete was formed in 1947 to provide care and treatment for priests with substance abuse problems. Its mission was expanded in the 1960s to include pedophilic and ephebophilic disorders. The center claims to have provided effective treatment. An internal study undertaken by the Servants of the Paraclete concluded that of the 2,000 priests who were treated at Jemez Springs from 1947 to 1968, only 10 committed criminal acts after leaving. …