Old Law and New Tricks: Charitable Immunity and the Catholic Church

Old Law and New Tricks: Charitable Immunity and the Catholic Church

A plaintiff filed suit against the Catholic Church for the abuse he allegedly suffered from a bishop in the 1960s. The Catholic Church attempted to invoke a now-abolished law—charitable immunity—to claim its status as a non-profit prevented it from being sued. The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently ruled on the case, rejecting Holy See’s argument. Below is a brief explanation of the matter, according to GBH News.


The Case


As per its own court rules, the SJC issues opinions on cases within 130 days of oral arguments. In John Doe v. the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, an unnamed plaintiff filed a claim against the Catholic Church based on allegations that he was sexually abused by the bishop of Springfield at the time when he was an altar boy in the 1960s. The plaintiff sought damages for negligent hiring and supervision of the bishop as well as monetary compensation for the sexual abuse. The Catholic Church challenged the claims and sought to block the lawsuit from going to a trial by jury.


The Church’s basis for the challenge rests on two arguments. First, under church autonomy, the Church argued that trial judges in civil matters may not significantly interfere with the religious activities of faith-based entities because of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Second, the Church claims charitable immunity a doctrine that protected charities from certain lawsuits if the underlying action was related to the organization’s charitable mission. The rationale behind the doctrine—which was abolished by the legislature in 1971—was that permitting such legal claims could deplete the organizations’ funding and upend their charitable goals.


The SJC’s Decision


When charitable immunity was abolished, it was done so for incidents that occurred after 1971. In short, the abolishment did not occur retroactively. So, essentially, the Church’s legal argument on this basis is valid even after all these years and even though the doctrine no longer exists because of when the alleged sexual abuse occurred in this particular acase.


The SJC did not address the first issue of church autonomy, stating it was not ripe for review, but did address the second issue of charitable immunity. After reviewing the pre-1971 caselaw on charitable immunity, the SJC held that the bishop’s alleged activities did not correlate with the Catholic Church’s charitable mission but, rather, simply had to do with his own behavior. Accordingly, the Church was not immune to a civil lawsuit related to the bishop’s activities. The plaintiff’s claims regarding negligent hiring and supervision of the bishop, however, were covered under charitable immunity because hiring and supervising fell in line with the Church’s charitable mission of its personnel. Accordingly, the claim could not proceed.


To read more about the case, click here.


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