EDITORIAL: PROBLEM PRIESTS - Out of the 16th century
updated: 04/03/2003 03:21 PM


A Missouri judge has handed a setback to Roman Catholic Church officials here, ruling that the church has no special First Amendment right to be negligent in protecting children from predatory priests.

It's despicable that church officials would make such a claim in the first place. Catholics and non-Catholics expect better. But for six years, the church in Missouri has been hiding behind a 1997 state supreme court ruling that courts could not question how the church supervises its clergy. The ruling in ((ITAL))Gibson v. Brewer((ITAL)) gave the church protections not enjoyed by other institutions that care for children.

The ((ITAL))Gibson((ITAL)) case has been a major obstacle to victims of sexual abuse by priests. Victims' lawyers have argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "valid neutral laws" apply to any and all institutions, including churches. It means the church must abide by all laws not aimed at strictly religious functions.

Last month in Hannibal, Mo., Senior Circuit Court Judge C. David Darnold agreed, ruling against a church motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the Diocese of Jefferson City and Anthony J. O'Connell, the former bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach. The plaintiff, a 48-year-old Minnesota man, charges that Bishop O'Connell sexually abused him over two years, beginning in 1967, when the man was a high school freshman at St. Thomas Seminary in Hannibal. Father O'Connell (not yet a bishop) was the rector, or superintendent.

Bishop O'Connell resigned his Florida post after the ((ITAL))Post-Dispatch((ITAL)) reported in March 2002 that he had been accused of sexual abuse. Three former seminarians eventually stepped forward saying Bishop O'Connell abused them.

"The church in Missouri has been throwing ((ITAL))Gibson((ITAL)) in the face of survivors and lawyers in the state for years," said Jeffrey Anderson, whose St. Paul, Minn., law firm represents the Minnesota plaintiff. "This ruling puts Missouri and its courts somewhere in the 21st century. The church's argument belonged to the 16th century. The church should be subject to the same standards as the rest of us."

By offering a settlement to all who have been hurt by its priests, the church could abide by an even higher standard than the laws of man.


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