PITTSFIELD - With 57 claimants awaiting the outcome, theRoman Catholic Diocese of Springfield faced off againstseven of its insurance carriers yesterday over thedisclosure of 7,500 pages of church documents.
Berkshire Superior Court was full of lawyers debatingissues such as spiritual counseling privilege,Constitutional religious rights and attorney-clientprivilege. The diocese is suing the insurance companies toget them to provide coverage for claims by 57 people whosaid they were sexually abused by priests. In 2004, thediocese settled a suit involving 46 other claimants for morethan $7 million.
The insurers argue that the documents will enable them tosee how the diocese has historically handled claims ofsexual abuse by its priests and whether it fulfilled its ownobligations to protect the public.
"The operative question is: What did the diocese knowabout clergy sexual abuse, and when did it know it?"said John Egan, who is representing Lloyds of London."Were these claims 'accidents' as defined inthe policies?"
According to lawyers, the documents involve the laicizationof some priests and show how the diocese counseled thosepriests and handled complaints of sexual abuse. John J.Egan, a lawyer for the diocese, said the 7,500 pages fallunder a state statute protecting the right to spiritualcounseling. Egan told Judge John A. Agostini that thecounseling pertained to the sacrament of Holy Orders becausesome of the priests faced the prospect of being defrocked.
"You're talking about internal church recordsinvolving the release from sacramental vows," he said.
Egan said the documents are also Constitutionally protectedunder the free exercise of religion.
Mark A. Darling, who represents Interstate Fire andCasualty Co., said the diocese has failed to show that thedocuments have anything to do with a spiritual counselingprivilege.
"They can't simply assign a moniker and adocument and say, 'You can't look atit,'" he said.
Kevin D. Withers, another diocese lawyer, said some of thedocuments involve people who have not filed claims andpriests who are not named in any lawsuits."They're simply not relevant in any way," hesaid.
But Joseph C. Tanski, who represents the MassachusettsInsurers Insolvency Fund, said the insurance companies havea right to know some details of the diocese's internaloperations.
"The information we're seeking bears on the issueof if the diocese reasonably expected harm would come fromputting priests in particular positions," he said."If the bishop wants coverage, he has to disclose theinformation."
Agostini said he would take the matter under advisement andissue a ruling. Afterward, Greenfield lawyer JohnStobierski, who represents 17 of the claimants, suggestedthat the money spent in paying lawyers' fees could havebeen put toward resolving the claims.
"There's an enormous waste of resources infighting over these matters," he said.