PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Superior Court judge has ruled that the Roman Catholic Diocese cannot be considered negligent for failing to prevent priests from molesting children.
Judge Richard Israel also denied a motion to dismiss the 34 civil suits against the diocese, allowing the cases to go to trial.
The suits that were first filed in 1992 claim the diocese intentionally hid evidence to protect priests accused of sexually abusing children and failed to notify policy about the allegations.
The cases have been tied up in court because the diocese has argued that the suits should be dismissed. The diocese has argued that constitutional guarantees of religious freedom protects the diocese and prevents it from being held liable for the priests’ actions.
In his decision on Friday, Israel agreed with the diocese that the constitution does not allow a government court to interpret Roman Catholic doctrine.
“A priest is not an employee of the bishop, and the diocese can’t just fire him,” said William T. Murphy, a Providence lawyer representing the diocese. “The relationship between a priest and a bishop is pastoral and sacramental. All talk of law doesn’t change that and the court can’t decide what is Catholic faith.”
Although negligence has been ruled out, Israel did allow the lawsuits to go forward to trial on the basis of intent. The diocese could appeal this decision.
“For us, this is the beginning of the case,” said Carl DeLuca, a lawyer representing 28 of the plaintiffs. “It allows us to finally go to discovery and eventually have a trial.”
The suits ask for unspecified damages for emotional and psychological distress. Similar suits in other states have netted millions of dollars for plaintiffs.
Israel’s ruling will make it more difficult for DeLuca because intent is harder to prove than negligence.
“There is a world of difference between negligence and intent,” Murphy said. “The ruling will have a major impact on the case.”
But DeLuca says he is not worried because the main point of the case has always been intent.
“The decision is dangerous because it says that the diocese can’t really do anything about these priests and neither can the courts,” DeLuca said. “But our goal has been to prove that the diocese intentionally protected these priests.”
Israel’s ruling contradicts with a decision made by U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres in November of last year. The lawsuits against the diocese were filed in both state and federal courts.
Torres ruled that the lawsuits could claim both negligence and intent.
Murphy said he will continue to argue that some of the cases should be dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations has expired.
Under state law, the lawsuits would have to be filed within three years of the assault, Murphy has said. He said some of the lawsuits claim sexual abuse that occurred more than 15 years ago.
DeLuca says the statute of limitations law doesn’t apply in these cases.
Israel’s ruling does not affect the lawsuits against the 13 priests who are accused of molesting about 40 children.
Frank Fitzpatrick, founder of Survivor Connections, a victim’s rights group in Cranston, says he is pleased that the cases are finally going to be heard.
“It is incredible that it has taken this much of a battle simply to have the opportunity to go to court to show people what the truth is,” said Fitzpatrick, a victim of molestation by a priest.