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  Home :: 2007 January :: Insurers win access to church documents

Insurers win access to church documents

Thursday, January 11,2007

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, seeking coveragefor dozens of claims of sexual abuse by priests, suffered amajor setback in its lawsuit against several insurancecarriers with a judge's decision that the diocese mustturn over most of nearly 7,700 pages in church documents.

Superior Court Associate Justice John A. Agostini, in an11-page decision, rejected that documents were protectedfrom disclosure under several arguments, including the FirstAmendment, priest-penitent privilege, religious autonomy andpsychotherapist-patient privilege. Agostini, who heardarguments in Berkshire Superior Court in December, did rulein favor of the diocese in arguing some documents wereprotected by attorney-client privilege.

Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, who represents morethan 20 people with abuse claims, said the decision was"a significant repudiation" of the positions takenby the diocese in its efforts to keep documents secret.

"There were a lot of creative legal arguments thatwere made and not accepted by the court," he saidyesterday.

Adam Simms, a lawyer for one of the carriers, North StarReinsurance Corp. of Stamford, Conn., had positive words forAgostini's decision.

"Speaking for myself, I think you could say we werevery pleased," said Simms, who practices in Boston.

Mark E. Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, said an appealmay be forthcoming.

"We still are reviewing the entire matter andhaven't determined if we will appeal certain aspects ofit," he said.

Asked which aspects of the ruling would be honored by thediocese, Dupont said, "I'm not free to say at thispoint."

Stobierski also said the Springfield diocese has continuedto fight on while other dioceses have settled sex abusecases.

"Nearly every other diocese in the country has beenable to negotiate these very same issues with theirinsurers," Stobierski said.

The diocese sued the carriers and the MassachusettsInsurers Insolvency Fund to obtain coverage for dozens ofabuse claims and to recoup $7.7 million paid in 2004 in thesettlement of a lawsuit involving 46 claimants representedby Stobierski.

The insurers have argued the documents sought will enablethem to see how the diocese has historically handled claimsof sexual abuse by priests, and whether it fulfilled itsobligations to protect the public.


In the decision dated Jan. 3, Agostini wrote that in someinstances the diocese raised a religious autonomy-FirstAmendment privilege to withhold disclosure of documents"which are, on their face, not confidential ... orwhich are devoid of substance."

"Privacy mandates by ecclesiastical authorities arenot, standing alone, binding on this court," Agostinialso wrote.

In addition, Agostini firmly rejected the argument that apsychotherapist-patient privilege precluded disclosure ofsome information.

"The Diocese argues that where ... the documents fromand relating to the accused priests' treatment wereplaced in a confidential file accessible only to the bishopand his designees, the psychotherapist privilege applies andprecludes their disclosure. This assertion is at odds withthe statute and the case law."

Dupont said the diocese felt it needed to be compelled bythe court to disclose that information.


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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia