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Catholic Church Seeks Legal Liability Limits

January 27, 1997
By: Ann S. Kim
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Church governance must be free from government scrutiny - even when sexual abuse by priests is alleged - the Missouri Supreme Court was told Monday (Jan. 27).

Heard by the state's highest court Monday were three cases involving charges of child abuse and the Catholic Church.

James Tierney, attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph argued that the diocese cannot be held liable for sexual abuse by its priests because the hiring, firing, supervision and retention of the clergy is an ecclesiastical matter.

"The relationship between churches and its clergy is different from other employer-employee relationships," said Tierney, who represents the diocese in two cases before the court.

The First Amendment gives churches absolute immunity from state incursion, Tierney said. Lack of such protection, he argued, would violate freedom of religious expression.

But Tierney's arguments were disputed by a lawyer representing the family of one child who charges sexual abuse by a priest.

"We're not challenging the Catholic Church's religious tenants," said Sylvester James, attorney for one of the families suing the church. But, James said, "churches offer no remedy, compensation, or help" for victims of abuse.

"You can't let them say, 'We're a religious organization...You can't touch us,'" he argued.

James represents Michael Gibson and his parents. The Gibsons allege that Michael Brewer fondled Michael Gibson in 1990 when Brewer was associate pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish Church.

The Gibson's claim Brewer had invited Michael to spend the night and watch movies at the rectory with a friend on the day of the alleged incident.

The Gibsons allege that when they informed the diocese, they were told that these incidents often happen to young men, that it was just an "innocent pat on the butt," that they should forgive and forget and move on with their lives.

Brewer is no longer active in the priesthood.

Tierney also represents the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese in a case alleging abuse by another priest during a ten-year period.

Nicholas Gray alleges that Thomas Ward first molested him in the rectory of St. Catherine's Catholic Church in 1982 when he was 14. Gray had gone to Ward to give confession which included sexual concerns.

Gray claims that Ward had taken him into the rectory, shown him provocative sketches of himself, disrobed and molested him.

The abuse continued for ten years and occurred in several churches of the diocese, Gray alleges.

"He essentially tried to brainwash this young man into thinking that this was an appropriate lifestyle," Gray's attorney, Robert Wells, told the court.

Wells argued that the diocese should be liable because it knew or should have known about the abuse.

Ward had been reinstated with overwhelming support in 1994, nine months after being suspended because of the allegations. Ward is now retired.

The third case comes from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Two brothers who allege that they suffer psychologically from witnessing the abuse of their other brother by a priest in 1982. The brothers allege they only discovered the connection between witnessing the abuse and the psychological damage in 1994 and 1995.

The issue in question is whether or not the statue of limitations - the time limit for filing a lawsuit - has run out in this case.

The judges gave no indication when they expect to issue a decision.