Monday, October 12, 2009

Vermont Supreme Court Remands Clergy Sex Abuse Case For New Trial, Ruling For Plaintiff

In Turner v. Roman Catholic Diocese, (VT Sup. Ct., Oct. 9, 2009), the Vermont Supreme Court held that neither the Free Exercise Clause, the Establishment Clause nor the religious autonomy doctrine bars negligent hiring or negligent supervision claims against the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont. In the clergy sexual abuse case in which the plaintiff was awarded $15,000 in damages, the Court said:
Defendant does not argue that the common law of negligence is something other than a neutral law of general applicability or that it is directed specifically towards a religious belief or practice of defendant. Nor has defendant identified a specific doctrine or practice that will be burdened if plaintiff’s suit goes forward. We do not believe defendant’s generalized assertion that requiring it to hire and supervise priests in a non-negligent manner would constitute undue interference in church governance.
Rejecting defendant's religious autonomy claim, the court said that "the claim was not brought under church law, nor did it seek to enforce the duties of defendant according to religious beliefs." The court also held that summary judgment should not be granted to defendant on statute of limitations grounds.

Finally the court held that the trial court should have excused for cause a juror who was a member of the defendant Diocese. The Court rejected the argument that permitting this challenge for cause would amount to religious discrimination. This finding led the Court to vacate the judgment and remand the case for a new trial.

Yesterday's Bennington (VT) Banner reported on this decision, as well as on another unrelated case in which a trial court jury in Chittenden, Vermont on Friday handed down a $2.2 million verdict in a suit against the same Catholic Diocese in a different clergy child molestation case.