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Friday, July 29, 2022

Charitable immunity does not protect diocese from claims of sexual assault in 1960s, high court rules

St. Michael's Cathedral, Springfield, Mass.
(John Phelan via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
Charitable immunity does not protect Catholic Church leaders in Springfield, Mass., from civil allegations of sexual assault, but it does shield them against liability for negligent supervision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday.

Pseudonymous plaintiff John Doe alleged sexual abuse, including a "'brutal[] rape'" while being held down by fellow altar boys and priests in the 1960s. Doe alleged that he first recovered memory of the abuse in 2013; he first complained to the church in 2014.

After investigations, the church offered the plaintiff an apology in 2019, and in 2021, he sued over both the abuse in the 1960s and the handling of the complaint since 2014. The Superior Court denied the defendants common law charitable immunity and ecclesiastical abstention under the First Amendment, prompting interlocutory appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court declined any First Amendment question as premature in advance of final judgment.

By statute, Massachusetts curbed charitable immunity to a $20,000 quantitative limit ($100,000 in medmal) in 1971. But the statute is not retroactive to Doe's 1960s claims.

The purpose of common law charitable immunity, the court reasoned, is to protect charitable actors "from the burden of litigation and trial." But in the context of sexual assault allegations, the defendants cannot be said to have been performing a charitable function. In contrast, "negligent supervision ... is exactly the sort of allegation against which common-law charitable immunity was meant to protect," for it implicates managerial functions in the selection of subordinates.

The case arises in the home state of the Boston Globe Spotlight team, whose 2002-04 investigation surfacing church abuse became the subject of a 2015 feature film. The bishop named in the instant suit as a perpetrator, who died in 1982, was implicated in the Spotlight investigation.

The case is Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, No. SJC-13219 (posted temporarily). Justice David A. Lowy wrote the unanimous opinion.

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