Maine Rejects Catholic Church’s “First Amendment” Defense in Pedophile Priest Case

The Maine Supreme Court has ruled that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland cannot assert the First Amendment as a defense to a claim of negligently supervising a pedophile priest.

The Court reviewed the First Amendment law on point and noted that “[t]he Diocese has not asserted that it actually holds to ecclesiastical doctrines concerning sin, penance, forgiveness and redemption that would have prevented or restricted the Bishop from intervening after learning that Melville might be sexually abusing boys, or from otherwise reporting this information to the police or the members of the parish.”

The Cour had this to say about the assertion of the Diocese that “‘the intrinsic logic of any judicial declaration and administration of a standard of care for church oversight of clergy necessarily will involve the [c]ourt deeply in matters of theology and governance:’ We do not accept this logic. It is not self-evident in this case that the application of a duty of due care will cause the Superior Court ‘to probe deeply . . . into the allocation of power within a [hierarchical] church so as to decide . . . religious law [governing church polity]’ in violation of either the First Amendment or Article I, section 3 of the Maine Constitution.” (citations omitted). Read the opinion here.

As some of you know, we are co-counsel in a case against the Nashville Diocese is a pedophile priest case. We do not allege negligent supervision of the priest; our case alleges outrageous conduct. The Nashville Diocese as recently started to actively assert that the First Amendment bars our claims against it, even though when it moved for summary judgment years ago it failed to make such a claim. In my mind the assertion of such a defense helps understand why the Church has the problems it has had around the country: it feels as if it is above the law. Like it or not, every church functions as the part of a larger society. That society has rules about how members of that society will conduct themselves. Every person – and every organization – has the obligation to follow those rules.