Malpractice Verdict Affect Abuse Cases in Boston: Brooklyn Diocese Lifts Ban on Lay Group; Newark Prelate Rebukes Head of Child Protection Office. (Church in Crisis)

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In a case closely watched by church officials, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts threw out a $4.1 million malpractice verdict against a Boston hospital, invoking a state law that no charitable institution can be sued for more than $20,000.

The Boston archdiocese has been trying to reach an out-of-court Settlement of more than 400 clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. Other Catholic dioceses and several religious orders in the state--all qualifying as charitable institutions--also face sex abuse lawsuits that could be affected by the high court ruling.

The court ruled that unless Brigham and Women's Hospital agreed to waive the $20,000 cap, it could not be forced to pay more than that for the severe brain. damage suffered there by Dylan Keene shortly after his birth in 1986.

Damages being sought in most, if not all, of the sexual abuse cases against church entities in Massachusetts are above the charity cap. The possibility that the law would be applied to those cases if they go to trial could have a significant impact on settlement negotiations.

In Southern California, where Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony is attempting to deal with an escalating number of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by archdiocesan priests, a Los Angeles County grand jury recently subpoenaed the personnel files of 14 more Los Angeles priests. In Santa Barbara April 24, attorney Timothy Hale filed an amended complaint of childhood sexual abuse on behalf of a client against a group of local Franciscan friars, the Los Angeles archdiocese and the Santa Barbara Boys Choir.

In the first case, the Los Angeles Times reported April 25 that the subpoenas followed testimony from detectives in several departments.

The subpoenas widen "the investigation and [set] the stage for another confrontation between the archdiocese and prosecutors over evidence in the clergy sex scandal."

Although files on 17 priests have been subpoenaed altogether, neither prosecutors nor police have been able to examine the 2,000 pages of contested documents.

The archdiocese's attorney, J. Michael Hennigan, who argues that priest-bishop conversations are constitutionally protected, was quoted in the Times saying the prosecutors "are playing for time."

The Times said prosecutors "believe information in the files will support allegations by more than a dozen adults that they were molested as children by priests."

In Santa Barbara, the plaintiff alleged that as a 10-year-old he was sexually abused by the friars, including in the shower, and that the friars took nude photographs of him. The lawsuit charges that the Franciscan province, the archdiocese and the Boys Choir knew the men were "pedophilic clergy."

Another former Southern California priest, Fr. Siegfried Widera, wanted on 42 molestation charges, is now the subject of a "manhunt" in Texas. Widera is not the first priest to flee law enforcement: Last October, police diverted a cruise ship in Alaskan water to arrest a priest, Fr. G. Neville Rucker, accused of sexual molestation.

According to The Associated Press, there is a price on Widera's head--a cash reward for information leading to his arrest.

An El Paso county sheriff's office spokesman said Widera "may be trying to conduct himself as a member of the clergy in smaller northern Mexico villages." According to the Los Angeles Times, the region's Deputy U.S. Marshal Doug Bachert said of Widera, "Where he is now, there are some unwitting families that have no idea what he is about."

On the East Coast, two influential bishops expressed vastly different views about church reform group Voice of the Faithful, which claims more than 25,000 members nationwide and contends it is mainstream and loyal to church teachings.

In an April 29 letter, Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., lifted his ban on the use of church property for meetings of the Voice of the Faithful and called meetings between diocesans personnel and group members "fruitful. …