June 2004 Church & State | AU Bulletin

A Pennsylvania state judge in early May dismissed a Catholic diocese's claim that church-state separation protects it from being sued for allegedly failing to punish sexually abusive priests.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is facing 13 lawsuits from individuals mostly on allegations of sexual abuse by priests. Attorneys for the religious group argued that the church-state provisions of the First Amendment prevent the court from questioning the tactics used by bishops to hire, fire or discipline priests, the Associated Press reported.

Blair County Judge Hiram Carpenter rejected the diocese's argument, stating that the lawsuits involve "not an attack on the freedom to believe, but rather an attack on the freedom to act contrary to the laws of the commonwealth."

The attorney for the plaintiffs said Carpenter's ruling will let their lawsuits against the diocese proceed. Church officials around the country have tried to use church-state separation as a defense in sex-abuse lawsuits, but these gambits have failed.

The Los Angeles Times reported in early May that an attorney for the city's Roman Catholic archdiocese would raise the First Amendment to try to block or limit the testimony of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in a civil lawsuit involving sex-abuse allegations against priest Oliver O'Grady in the Stockton diocese.

In April the attorney, Donald F. Woods Jr., asked a state judge to sanction the opposing attorneys for seeking to question Mahony about the case. Woods argued that the opposing counsel had not proven an "urgent need" to obtain Mahony's deposition for the case.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy did not rule on the sanctions request, but did halt litigation in more than 90 sex-abuse cases, including the Stockton situation, until the state's chief justice names a trial judge in the cases.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Stockton lawsuit told the newspaper that Mahoney must testify because he has "direct and particular knowledge...as to the Stockton Diocese's direct involvement in concealing O'Grady's past and continuing acts, and assigning, enabling and allowing O'Grady to continue to prey on children."