Mass. Ruling Upholds Church Immunity

A recent Massachusetts court ruling is casting doubt on future settlements between churches and alleged victims of clergy sex abuse.

Hampden Superior Court Judge John Agostini last week upheld the state’s charitable immunity statute in a lawsuit filed by a woman who was suing the Worcester Diocese for abuse.

The law says charitable institutions — including churches— are shielded from prosecution for alleged crimes that happened before 1971. The law also limits the institutions’ liability to $20,000 after that date.

In the Worcester Diocese case, Jane Martin said the church was negligent in hiring the Rev. Robert E. Kelley, who she said abused her as a child. Her lawyer said he plans to appeal the ruling.

The Springfield diocese, which recently reached a $7.5 million settlement with 45 people who say they were abused by priests as children, told The Republican newspaper of Springfield it is reviewing Agostini’s decision. But officials didn’t indicate whether church lawyers will invoke the charitable immunity law for future sex abuse claims.

“The diocese is aware of last week’s ruling. Our attorneys are reviewing it, and upon completion of that review will advise the diocese,” read a statement issued by the diocese.

John Stobierski, the Greenfield lawyer who represented the 45 people who settled their claims with the Springfield Diocese, said the ruling has no bearing on his clients’ agreement.

“It remains to be seen the impact of the ruling on pending or future claims,” Stobierski told The Republican.

In settling his clients’ claims, Stobierski said the diocese agreed to waive legal technicalities, including the charitable immunity statute, to settle the claims on a moral basis.

“Hopefully, the diocese would not treat anyone else differently,” Stobierski said.

Lawyers say there are about 20 people who may want to settle clergy sex abuse claims against the Springfield Diocese, and 200 more who may seek future settlements with the Boston Archdiocese.

Last year, the Boston Archdiocese paid $85 million to settle more than 500 lawsuits.

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