SPRINGFIELD — In a rare move, the Supreme Judicial Court is inviting debate over questions arising from a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. How the state’s highest court rules will be pivotal to a former altar boy’s wish to be compensated for rapes he endured by a bishop who long led Catholic life in the Berkshires.
Francis V. Kenneally, the SJC’s clerk, notified attorneys Wednesday that justices have decided to consider legal issues relating to whether the church is protected from a claim that the unnamed plaintiff suffered not only brutal sexual assaults by former Bishop Christopher J. Weldon and other priests, but that diocesan officials bungled his 2014 report of that abuse.
Though the lawsuit was filed in Hampden Superior Court, a judge’s ruling at that level this year was appealed by the diocese’s legal team to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The Superior Court case is continuing, though, after the plaintiff’s attorney successfully argued that, because of his age, the case should not be delayed on appeal. The plaintiff is 70.
This week, the SJC opted to take the case itself. It invited outside parties with interests in the underlying legal issues to file what’s known as “amicus” briefs.
So far this month, the SJC has invited “friend of the court” briefs in connection with four cases.
An attorney familiar with the process said it is rare for the high court both to “pluck” a case from the appellate level and to invite amicus briefs.
The Chicopee plaintiff, known only as John Doe, waited six years for his allegation of forcible rape by Weldon to be found “unequivocally credible” by an outside judge in June 2020.
That judge’s report depicted efforts within the diocese to conceal the late bishop’s history of abuse. Weldon’s name was added to the list of credibly accused clergy that month.
In the Superior Court case, attorneys for the diocese and eight named defendants moved unsuccessfully to have John Doe’s lawsuit dismissed, on the grounds that the church is protected by “common law charitable immunity” in effect at the time of the alleged assaults in the 1960s. They also claimed that under the First Amendment, the court system does not have “subject matter jurisdiction,” as the SJC clerk’s memo put it, “to consider internal church matters.”
In the Superior Court, Judge Karen L. Goodwin denied the church’s move to dismiss the case on those grounds, writing: “The case law interpreting the common law charitable immunity cannot fairly be construed to give charitable organizations carte blanche immunity from suit simply because their articles of incorporation evidence charitable purposes.”
The SJC’s call for briefs asks parties to address the questions of charitable immunity and First Amendment protection. The court has not set a deadline on the filings of the amicus briefs.
The complaint names as defendants former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, John J. Egan, Patricia McManamy, Monsignor Christopher Connelly, Jeffrey Trant, John Hale, Kevin Murphy and Mark Dupont. It also names the legal entity known as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, a Corporation Sole.
UPDATED: After 20 months of work, an independent task force weighs in on how the Diocese of Springfield should improve its handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations.