Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation190 N.E.3d 1035
Docket NumberSJC-13219
Decision Date28 July 2022

190 N.E.3d 1035

John DOE


Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Hampden.

Argued April 4, 2022
Decided July 28, 2022

Michael G. McDonough (Kevin D. Withers, Springfield & John G. Bagley, Boston, also present) for the defendants.

Nancy Frankel Pelletier, Springfield, for the plaintiff.

Present: Budd, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Cypher, Kafker, & Georges, JJ.


190 N.E.3d 1038

The plaintiff brought suit against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, a corporation sole (Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield), and church officials for the sexual abuse by church leadership that he allegedly endured as a child in the 1960s and for the church's handling of his complaint beginning in 2014.2 The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds of common-law charitable immunity and the doctrine of church autonomy, the latter of which is derived largely from the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; a Superior Court judge denied the motion.

The primary issue presented is whether the defendants may use the doctrine of present execution to appeal immediately from the denial of their motion to dismiss even though final judgment has not yet issued.3 The doctrine of present execution permits an appeal before final judgment when the appellate issue concerns a matter that is collateral to the underlying litigation and that cannot be addressed fully after final judgment. See CP 200 State, LLC v. CIEE, Inc., 488 Mass. 847, 849, 179 N.E.3d 45 (2022).

We conclude that the doctrine of present execution does not apply to the defendants’ church autonomy arguments, because they can be addressed adequately on appeal should the plaintiff prevail. Accordingly, we do not address these arguments’ merits. In contrast, we conclude that common-law charitable immunity, as it existed before the Legislature abolished it in 1971, would be lost if a charity protected by the immunity nevertheless had to litigate. The arguments pertaining to common-law charitable immunity, therefore, fall within the doctrine of present execution and properly are before us. Reaching the merits, we determine that common-law charitable immunity insulates the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield only from the count alleging negligent hiring and supervision. It does not protect the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield from the counts alleging sexual assault against the plaintiff, as these allegations do not involve conduct related to a charitable mission.

Background. We take the following facts from the complaint and documents attached to it. See Sacks v. Dissinger, 488 Mass. 780, 781, 178 N.E.3d 388 (2021) ; Schaer v. Brandeis Univ., 432 Mass. 474, 477, 735 N.E.2d 373 (2000).

190 N.E.3d 1039

In the 1960s, when the plaintiff was approximately from nine to eleven years old, he served as an altar boy at a parish in Massachusetts. He was abused sexually by multiple church officials, including a priest at the parish, the pastor of the parish, and then Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield Christopher J. Weldon. The abuse included "severe anal penetration" and occurred in a rectory bedroom at the parish, a camp in a different town, and a building adjacent to the parish. On one occasion, the plaintiff grabbed onto door frames to prevent Weldon from taking him into a room. Weldon nevertheless dragged the plaintiff into the room, where at least one other altar boy and two priests were present, and commanded one of the altar boys or priests to get the plaintiff onto the bed. The altar boys and priests grabbed the plaintiff, flipped him onto his stomach, and pinned him to the bed while Weldon and others "brutally raped" him.

The plaintiff did not remember these events as an adult until March 2013, when a television program about the Vatican triggered memories of the abuse. In November 2014, he recounted his abuse to defendant Reverend Monsignor Christopher Connelly, an employee of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, and defendant Patricia Finn McManamy, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield's director of counseling, prevention, and victim services. Neither Connelly nor McManamy reported the allegations to the district attorney's office at that time. Nor did McManamy report the alleged abuse after meeting with the plaintiff again in 2016. She ultimately reported the allegations to the district attorney's office in August 2018.

In April 2018, McManamy referred the matter to an investigator for the church, defendant Kevin Murphy. Murphy interviewed the plaintiff one time, and then presented a report to the diocesan review board.4 There were four drafts of this report. Two of the drafts indicated, without explanation, that the plaintiff had stated both that he had been molested by Weldon and that he had not been molested by Weldon. Two other drafts did not include the plaintiff's assertion that Weldon had molested him. Murphy gave the board one of the latter drafts. During a June 2018 meeting of the review board, the plaintiff described being abused by Weldon. After an additional meeting in September 2018, the review board found that the plaintiff's allegations relating to various officials, including Weldon, were "compelling and credible."

In May 2019, a reporter for the Berkshire Eagle newspaper sent an e-mail message to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield's communications director, defendant Mark Dupont, asking why Weldon was not on a list of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse even though the review board had found the plaintiff's allegations to be "compelling and credible." Dupont replied, "You should know that there is NO finding of sexual abuse of any

190 N.E.3d 1040

person involving ... Weldon -- NONE.... In fact even the unnamed victim acknowledged that Weldon did not abuse him in statements made to our investigator." He repeated this position in another statement to the reporter in June 2019. He also told the reporter that the notes of the review board meetings "don't indicate the victim contradicting his previous statement to our investigator that they had not been molested by the former bishop," even though Dupont had received an e-mail message stating that, according to the minutes of the June 2018 review board meeting, the plaintiff had described "abuse by ... Weldon" at that meeting. The Berkshire Eagle then published an article with a statement from the chair of the review board, defendant John Hale, asserting that the review board had never found that Weldon "engaged in improper contact with anyone."

After the Berkshire Eagle article was published, a former judge conducted an investigation at the request of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield. The former judge concluded that the plaintiff's allegations against Weldon were "unequivocally credible" and that the church's response to the allegations had been "greatly flawed." The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield at the time, defendant Mitchell T. Rozanski, wrote to the plaintiff in June 2020 stating that he accepted the former judge's conclusion and asking the plaintiff to "accept [his] apology for the terrible abuse [the plaintiff] had to endure as a young child ... [and] the chronic mishandling of [the plaintiff's] report by the diocese time and time again since 2014."

The plaintiff commenced an action in the Superior Court in January 2021 against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield and several church officials who had helped investigate the plaintiff's allegations. Counts one through seven arose out of the alleged sexual abuse of the plaintiff in the 1960s.5 Counts eight through fourteen arose out of how the church handled the plaintiff's accusations starting in 2014.6

The defendants moved to dismiss counts one through seven for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted, on the ground of common-law charitable immunity. See Mass. R. Civ. P. 12 (b) (6), 365 Mass. 754 (1974). They moved to dismiss counts eight through fourteen on the ground that resolving them would require the court to become entangled in a religious organization's review process (namely, that of the diocesan review board) in violation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. A Superior Court judge denied the motion to dismiss, reasoning that further factual development was needed to decide the common-law charitable immunity issue and that the complaint's allegations did not implicate the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The defendants appealed, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion.7

190 N.E.3d 1041

Discussion. 1. Doctrine of present execution. We first address whether the defendants’ arguments properly are before us. We conclude that the charitable immunity arguments, relating to counts one through seven, are, and that the church autonomy arguments, relating to counts eight through fourteen, are not. See Shapiro v. Worcester, 464 Mass. 261, 264-265, 982 N.E.2d 516 (2013) (applying doctrine of present execution to some, but not all, claims raised on appeal).8

"As a general rule, there is no right to appeal from an interlocutory order unless a statute or rule authorizes it." CP 200 State, LLC, 488 Mass. at 848, 179 N.E.3d...

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