Friday, July 29, 2022

Interlocutory Appeal Available On Charitable Immunity Ruling, But Not On Church Autonomy Holding

In Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, (MA Sup. Jud. Ct., July 28, 2022), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that an defendant cannot not take an interlocutory appeal from the trial court's refusal to dismiss portions of a lawsuit on church autonomy grounds. The suit alleged that plaintiff, in the 1960's when he served as an altar boy, was sexually abused by multiple church officials including a parish priest, a pastor and the bishop. The court said in part:

The [ecclesiastical abstention] rule's central purpose is to address the historic, philosophical concern with government interference in religious affairs by maintaining the constitutional separation between religion and government; at least originally, another purpose was to prevent civil courts from addressing matters in which they lack competence.... 

Both these concerns can be addressed on appeal after final judgment if a lower court inadvertently rules on a religious issue.

The court held, however, that an interlocutory appeal is available from the trial court's ruling on charitable immunity, saying in part:

Unlike ecclesiastical abstention, then, the purpose of common-law charitable immunity was to protect certain parties "from the burden of litigation and trial." 

 At common law, charitable immunity extended only to wrongdoing "committed in the course of activities carried on to accomplish charitable activities." ... The abuse allegedly carried out by Weldon and other church leaders was not, and could not be, related in any way to a charitable mission....

However, one count should have been dismissed.... Count six alleges that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield negligently hired and supervised the church leaders who allegedly assaulted the plaintiff. A negligent supervision claim is exactly the sort of allegation against which common-law charitable immunity was meant to protect.