More than half a century ago, when the Catholic bishop for western Massachusetts and other priests were raping and abusing an altar boy, charities like churches held immunity from certain legal actions.
Though the Legislature ended common-law charitable immunity in 1971, the law change wasn’t retroactive. In April, a lawyer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield argued before the Supreme Judicial Court that a civil lawsuit filed by that former altar boy over his abuse by former Bishop Christopher Weldon should be dismissed.
The church remained protected by that immunity, the lawyer argued.
This week, the SJC rejected that claim.
The decision means the unnamed Chicopee man’s lawsuit against the diocese will move forward in Hampden County Superior Court.
Charitable immunity, Associate Justice David A. Lowy wrote in a 25-page decision, does not protect the diocese from counts in the lawsuit related to sexual assaults by Weldon and other priests — violence the diocese acknowledged occurred in the early 1960s.
“It does not protect the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield from the counts alleging sexual assault against the plaintiff, as these allegations do not involve conduct related to a charitable Mission,” Lowy wrote.
For that reason, Lowy’s decision says, Judge Karen L. Goodwin “properly denied the motion to dismiss on the ground of charitable immunity for the counts alleging sexual abuse of the plaintiff.”
The case was elevated from the Appeals Court to the SJC in December because the high court wanted to consider issues it raises. They included whether the diocese, which includes all of Berkshire County, was protected, in these circumstances, by charitable immunity, the legal protection in place at the time of the assaults.
State courts had declined to dismiss the litigation. In an earlier action March 4, Lowy denied a move by lawyers for the diocese and other defendants to delay proceedings in the case, saying the plaintiff “has a right to expeditious resolution of his case.”
In that earlier decision, Lowy said the case needed to be heard to evaluate defense claims. “The defendants’ claims of both charitable immunity and lack of subject matter jurisdiction appear to be factually bound up with the merits of Doe’s claims, not collateral to them,” Lowy wrote.
The lawsuit had been scheduled for a final pretrial conference by June 30 in Hampden County Superior Court. The court has extended the period of discovery at the request of the defendants.
The lawsuit, brought by a man identified only as John Doe, includes two sets of claims. The first relates to the 1960s abuse. The second stems from events after the plaintiff reported that abuse in 2014, and whether the church injured him further through its inaction and what the suit claims was an attempted cover-up in 2019.
In 2020, an outside judge hired by the diocese determined the man’s allegations against Weldon and two other priests to be “unequivocally credible.”
The man’s lawsuit, filed in February 2021 by Nancy Frankel Pelletier of the Springfield firm Robinson Donovan, claims that Doe was repeatedly and violently abused by clergy members.
After he reported that abuse decades later to the diocese, the man’s lawyers say he was met by “deliberate indifference” — conduct the suit claims left him further traumatized. The complaint alleges people who work or worked for the diocese played roles in suppressing the man’s initial reports of abuse by Weldon and other clergy.
Attorney Michael G. McDonough, of Egan, Flanagan and Cohen of Springfield, represents the diocese and most of eight other defendants.
In addition to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, a Corporation Sole, the lawsuit names John J. Egan, former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, Patricia McManamy, Monsignor Christopher Connelly, Jeffrey Trant, John Hale, Kevin Murphy and Mark Dupont.