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The plaintiff sued the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, a corporate sole (Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield), and church officials for the sexual abuse by church leadership he allegedly endured as a child in the 1960s and for the church’s handling of his complaints beginning during 2014.
IN John Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield et al., No. SJC-13219, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden (July 28, 2022) dismissed the defendants’ complaint on the grounds of general statutory immunity and the doctrine of church autonomy, the latter of which derives in large part from the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution . A Supreme Court judge denied the motion.
The primary issue presented is whether the defendants may use the current execution doctrine to immediately appeal the denial of their motion to dismiss, even though final judgment has not yet been entered. The doctrine of present execution permits a pre-judgment appeal when the appeal concerns an issue that is collateral to the underlying dispute and cannot be fully addressed after final judgment.
The Massachusetts court concluded that common law charitable immunity, as it existed before the legislature abolished it in 1971, would be lost if a charity protected by the immunity nevertheless had to litigate.
In the 1960s, when plaintiff was approximately nine to eleven years old, he served as an altar boy in a congregation in Massachusetts. He was sexually abused by several church officials, including a parish priest, the pastor of the parish, and then the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield Christopher J. Weldon. The abuse included “severe anal penetration” and occurred in a parsonage room in the parish, a camp in another town and a building adjacent to the parish. Weldon allegedly dragged plaintiff into the room, where at least one other altar boy and two priests were present, and ordered one of the altar boys or priests to get plaintiff onto the bed. The altar boys and priests grabbed the plaintiff, turned him on his stomach and pinned him to the bed while Weldon and others “brutally raped” him.
After an investigation by the church, then-Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, defendant Mitchell T. Rozanski, wrote to the plaintiffs in June 2020 stating that he accepted the former judge’s conclusion and asking the plaintiffs to “accept [his] apology for the terrible abuse [the plaintiff] had to endure as a small child. . . [and] the chronic mismanagement of [the plaintiff’s] report from the diocese time and time again since 2014.”
Without accepting the apology, the plaintiff sued the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield and several church officials who had helped investigate the plaintiff’s allegations.
The defendants moved to dismiss counts one through seven for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, based on general statutory immunity. They moved to dismiss counts eight through fourteen on the ground that resolving them would require the court to interfere with the review process of a religious organization (namely, that of the diocesan review board) in violation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
The doctrine of present execution allows an appeal from otherwise non-final orders which
- is “security for the rest of the controversy” and
- “interfere with with rights in a way that cannot be remedied on appeal from a final judgment,” because, for example, “protection from the burden of suit and trial is the very right which [a party] claim a right.” [Estate of Moulton v. Puopolo, 467 Mass. 478, 485 (2014), and Patel v. Martin, 481 Mass. 29, 33 (2018).]
A wrongful denial of immunity from suit, by definition, cannot be cured after the party asserting the immunity has already litigated the issue to final judgment. And immunity from suit is always considered collateral for the underlying litigation.
To distinguish between immunity from liability and immunity from suit, the court must look to the purpose behind the immunity rather than the words used to describe it.
The First Amendment prohibits civil courts from intervening in disputes over religious doctrine, discipline, belief, or internal organization. It allows hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create courts to adjudicate disputes over these matters.
The rule’s central purpose is to address the historical, philosophical concern with government interference in religious affairs by upholding the constitutional separation of religion and government; at least originally, another purpose was to prevent civil courts from hearing cases where they lacked jurisdiction.
If the Court of Appeals were to extend the doctrine of current enforcement to all important issues that theoretically cannot be addressed after final judgment, then the exception swallows the rule. The defendants’ argument for ecclesiastical independence was not properly before the Court of Appeals, and it refused to address their merits.
General Beneficial Immunity
Common-law charitable immunity was abolished by the Legislature in 1971. Nevertheless, common-law charitable immunity applies to counts one through seven in this case because those counts describe conduct that allegedly occurred in the 1960s and the abolition of charitable immunity by the Legislature was prospective.
In protecting charities under the common law, Massachusetts courts reasoned that funds held in trust for a charitable purpose should be used only for that purpose.
Decisions upholding the full immunity view rationalize that the resources of charitable institutions are better used to further the charitable purposes of the institution than to pay damages claims brought by the charitable beneficiaries.
Unlike ecclesiastical abstinence, the purpose of general legal immunity was to protect certain parties from the burden of litigation and lawsuits. Therefore, an interlocutory appeal is necessary to protect the rights of charities asserting general legal immunity, and the present execution doctrine applies to charitable immunity arguments here.
Merits of Common Law Charitable Immunity Argument
At common law, charitable immunity extended only to offenses committed in connection with activities carried out in furtherance of charitable activities. The alleged abuse by Weldon and other church leaders was not, and could not be in any way related to, a charitable mission. Accordingly, the judge denied the motion to dismiss on the grounds of charitable immunity for the sexual assault allegations against the plaintiff.
A claim of negligent surveillance is exactly the kind of charge against which general legal immunity was intended to protect. Count six should therefore have been dismissed.
Reaching the merits, the court determined that common law charitable immunity insulates the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield only from the count alleging negligent leasing and supervision. It does not shield the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield from the allegations of sexual abuse against the plaintiffs, because those allegations do not involve conduct related to a charitable mission.
The order denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss was affirmed on all counts except count six, on which judgment is entered for the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield.
Regardless of the gross abuse committed by the plaintiff, the defendants properly claimed immunity for parts of the suit because they involved the church’s charitable function, while the rape of a young boy by senior members of the church had absolutely nothing to do with its charitable function. and provides an example of why the state waived the immunity.
Random Thoughts on Insurance Volume XIV: A collection of blog posts from Zalma on insurance —
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Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to serving as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims management, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims attorney and more than 54 years in the insurance industry. He can be reached at http://www.zalma.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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