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Clergy sex scandals called threat to free worship

Litigation associated with with clergy sex abuse threatens religious liberty more than a tyrannical government, according to prominent legal scholars at a conference at the weekend at Boston College law school.

"These cases will profoundly alter the nature of organised religion," said Professor Patrick Schiltz of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. "This litigation has the potential to do to churches what many a tyrannical government could not."

The conference included many of the leading legal scholars of church-state relations, canon lawyers and the general counsel of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They acknowledged that the scandals arose from widespread abuses.

But they also expressed surprise at how quickly and vigorously the law governing the activities of churches had reacted. Several suggested that the legal system had overreacted and perhaps acted capriciously.

"Criminal liability for a diocese is now on the table, something that would have been unimaginable not long ago," said Angela Carmella, a professor at Seton Hall Law School.

John Baker, a professor at Louisiana State University Law Centre said an agreement in December between the Diocese of New Hampshire and the state's attorney general was "outrageous interference" by the government in religious matters. That diocese agreed to state oversight in exchange for a promise that it would not be indicted.

New York Times/Tri-Valley Herald

Boston College Law School

8 Apr 2003