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Diocese asks state’s top court to halt suit by Bishop Weldon sexual abuse survivor

Monument's days numbered at disgraced bishop's resting place (copy) (copy)

This former monument to the late Christopher J. Weldon was removed after an independent inquiry found cause to believe that Weldon, who oversaw the Springfield Diocese from 1950 to 1977 and died in 1982, sexually abused an altar boy in Chicopee. That survivor now is suing the diocese and people who worked for it, claiming that they worked in various ways to cover up his assertions of clergy abuse. The Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments on the matter Monday.

A lawyer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield asked the state’s top court Monday to halt a civil lawsuit brought by the former Chicopee altar boy who suffered sexual assaults decades ago at the hands of former Bishop Christopher J. Weldon.

The high-profile case was elevated from the Appeals Court to the Supreme Judicial Court in December because the high court wanted to consider issues it raises.

They include whether the diocese, which includes all of Berkshire County, is protected by what’s known as charitable immunity, a legal protection that existed under certain circumstances at the time of the assaults in the 1960s. Also, the case tests whether the First Amendment’s protection of church autonomy renders a religious organization beyond the reach of the courts in a case like this.

State courts have so far declined to dismiss the litigation. In an earlier action March 4, Associate Justice David A. Lowy of the SJC 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 decision, Lowy said the case needed to be heard to fully evaluate assertions by the defense. “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.

Our Opinion: Weldon verdict must produce real change (copy)

Sexual abuse by former Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, which an outside judge found to be "unequivocally credible" constitutes half of the counts in a civil lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield and some of its past and current employees.  

The court has taken the issue under advisement and it is not known when a decision will come. The lawsuit had been scheduled for a final pretrial conference by June 30 in Hampden County Superior Court. The court recently extended the period of discovery to June 15, at the request of the defendants.

Monday’s hearing

In most of their exchanges with lawyers Monday, justices zeroed in on the question of whether existing case law should leave the court wary of involving the judicial system with church matters.

The lawsuit, brought by a Chicopee resident identified only as John Doe, includes two sets of claims. The first relates to the 1960s abuse, which the church has accepted occurred. 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 in the 1960s.

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. He argued Monday before the SJC that the church’s handling of the former altar boy’s allegations was part of its internal process and should not be subject to the civil court system.

Though Weldon and two other clergy named in the complaint are dead, the church was acting in recent years to hold them accountable, making that a part of its internal disciplinary process, McDonough argued.

“Disciplinary systems have always been found to be protected,” he said.

McDonough wrote in a legal filing that the counts related to the diocese’s handling of the plaintiff’s report of abuse “impermissibly entangle government with religion.”

In her presentation, Pelletier told the justices that the diocese, in responding to questions about Weldon in 2019 from The Berkshire Eagle, acted outside of its internal review process. For that reason, the conduct should not be considered a matter of church autonomy, she suggested.

As documented in the 2020 report by retired judge Peter A. Velis, officials with the diocese, including one of its lawyers, John J. Egan, denied to The Eagle that the Chicopee man had named Weldon as an abuser. Egan is a defendant in the lawsuit.

“The response to that inquiry is where the defamation lies,” Pelletier said.

Associate Justice Scott L. Kafker pressed Pelletier, expressing concern that McDonough may be correct about a court’s entrance into an internal church matter.

“Don’t they have a point that some of that is beyond our jurisdiction and will get us excessively entangled in the church disciplinary and investigatory process?” the justice asked. “They seem to have a pretty good point, which is we don’t want the civil courts reviewing how the church’s own processes went. That’s separate. We should stay out of that.”

Pelletier worked to draw a distinction between the church’s handling of a report of clergy abuse through its Review Board, on the one hand, and what officials said about Weldon, in internal emails and in statements to The Eagle.

“There was then an entirely separate scenario,” she said. “They allegedly conducted some form of investigation, so as to allow them to respond to the [media] inquiries.”

“I think there’s a separation once they begin to respond and create a false narrative,” she said.

Kafker replied: “The question is, [does] the judicial system create a remedy for that?”

In addition to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, a Corporation Sole, the lawsuit names Egan, former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, Patricia McManamy, Monsignor Christopher Connelly, Jeffrey Trant, John Hale, Kevin Murphy and Mark Dupont.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

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Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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