Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Court keeps church safeguard
Sidney man's abuse case likely to be 1st affected by narrow ruling

Press Herald Staff Reporter,

Copyright 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

PORTLAND A legal barrier that makes it nearly impossible to sue religious institutions for the actions of clergy remains intact following a Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision announced Tuesday.

Although the case did not involve the Roman Catholic Church, the decision is viewed as a defeat for people who say they were sexually abused by priests, but have not been able sue the church in state courts because of a legal doctrine which considers the supervision of clergy to be protected by the Constitution.

In the 4-2 decision announced Tuesday, the court sidestepped constitutional issues that had been raised in a case that challenged that doctrine. That leaves the current law in place and means churches are protected from lawsuits.

"It's not what I would call a victory for the victims, but it doesn't mean that we are defeated," said Sumner Lipman, an Augusta lawyer who represents a man who says he was repeatedly molested by a priest who had a history of sexual abuse known to his superiors.

The first case that is likely to be affected was filed last year by Michael Fortin of Sidney, who said he was molested repeatedly by his parish priest, the Rev. Raymond Melville.

"The issue is not fully decided. There are some green lights here," Lipman said.

The court's decision on Tuesday involved the appeal of a woman who said she was sexually assaulted by a Protestant minister.

Mariah Napieralski charged that Kenneth Williamson, her pastor at the Unity Church of Greater Portland, forced her to have sex while she visited his home to sell him insurance. She sued both Williamson and the church, charging that the church board knew about other allegations of sexual misconduct against the minister and should have protected her. But before the merits of her case could be discussed, the lawsuit was dismissed under the religious freedom doctrine established in the 1997 Maine Supreme Court case known as Swanson v. the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland.

In that case, a couple from Gray went to their parish priest in 1990 to discuss getting remarried in a Catholic ceremony. While counseling them, the priest became involved in a consensual sexual relationship with the woman. This led to the couple's divorce. While the divorce was being contested, the couple's son killed himself.

The pair separately sued the priest and the church, charging that his actions destroyed their family and that the church should have protected them from him.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. In its 5-2 decision in 1997, justices ruled that the method a church uses to select, train and supervise a priest is a matter of religious doctrine and beyond the scrutiny of secular law. The court ruled that the relationship of a bishop and priest involves beliefs in penance, sin and reconciliation that could not be examined in court without violating the church's rights established in the U.S. and Maine constitutions.

In Tuesday's decision upholding the dismissal of Napieralski's case, the court avoided the issue of religious freedom. Instead, the court's majority said negligent supervision claims against employers have never been recognized in Maine, unlike in some other states, and that it would be inappropriate to allow such a claim given the facts of Napieralski's lawsuit.

"The facts here involve contact between adults for the purpose of addressing a private, personal matter unrelated to the business or function of the Unity Church," Justice Donald Alexander wrote.

Two dissenting justices said the plaintiff should be allowed to uncover additional facts before having her lawsuit dismissed.

"Without specific facts, it is impossible to fully consider the merit of adopting the tort of negligent supervision," wrote Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who wrote the majority opinion in the 1997 case.

Napieralski's lawyers expressed surprise and disappointment over the ruling.

"It's just an outrageous position to take in the 21st century. If you have a situation where the supervisors of the clergy know about sexual abuse and do nothing about it, then in Maine, tough luck to the victims," said Edward Rabasco.

The decision appears to leave open the question as to whether Maine churches are immune from such lawsuits under the constitutional separation of church and state, said Verne Paradie Jr., another lawyer representing Napieralski.

Frederick Moore, a lawyer who has represented the Catholic Church in several sex abuse cases, said in an April interview that the ordinary rules of employee supervision shouldn't apply to churches. Denominations base their practices on their religious teachings, he said, and churches decide how to train or discipline ministers based on their interpretations of specific passages from the Bible.

Courts would have a difficult time determining whether those churches are following adequate supervision policies without intruding into matters of religious teaching, Moore said.

On Tuesday, he supported the narrow ruling of the court.

"I think the law court has clearly said if it's not the employer's business being conducted, then the church has no responsibility. And I think that's absolutely fair," he said.

Moore moved to have Fortin's case dismissed, claiming the church's constitutional protection under Maine law. In a hearing in January, Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup said he would not rule until the Supreme Court decided the Napieralski case. Studstrup's decision is expected soon.

But Lipman, Fortin's lawyer, said the Supreme Court did not completely shut the door to his client. He plans to file an immediate motion asking for more information from the church. If the case is dismissed, he predicted the decision would be appealed, sending the church's constitutional protection back to the Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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