Ruling offers new basis for suits against churches

Associated Press/February 23, 2005
By Michael Kunzelman

A Superior Court judge has ruled that a Jehovah's Witness church in Boston can be sued for breaking its trust and legal duty to a girl who said she was sexually abused by one of the church's ministerial servants.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Herman Smith Jr.'s ruling is believed to be the first time a Massachusetts court has determined that church officials have a "fiduciary duty" to members of their congregation, a relationship akin to the one lawyers and doctors share with clients and patients.

Smith's ruling, made earlier this month, also is expected to open another legal channel for lawyers to bring civil suits against churches for clergy abuse cases, according to Lisa Bruno, news editor for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

"It gives another piece of ammunition to plaintiffs, another grounds for finding a church liable for the actions of priests and ministers," Bruno said.

Carmen Durso, a Boston lawyer who settled 40 lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003, said he expects Smith's ruling to pave the way for more clergy abuse cases to proceed.

"It affords another basis, a stronger basis, for bringing claims against churches in sex abuse cases," Durso said.

The girl at the center of Smith's ruling was between 9 and 11 when a ministerial servant with the Columbus Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses allegedly molested her during Bible study classes in her home, Lawyers Weekly reported.

The girl's parents, who learned about the alleged abuse in August 2000, sued the ministerial servant and two Boston-area Jehovah's Witness congregations for negligence as well as breach of fiduciary duty.

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