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Utah high court sides with Mormon church in sexual-abuse case

By The Associated Press

03.12.01

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SALT LAKE CITY — In a case involving alleged sexual abuse, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mormon church late last week, saying a lawsuit filed by a Mormon family invited "an excessive government entanglement with religion."

In 1986, Lynette Earl Franco, age 7 at the time, allegedly suffered sexual abuse at the hands of another church member, a boy who was 14 at the time.

Franco and her parents, Ralph and Janice Earl, sued the church in 1998, claiming two church leaders were negligent when they advised the family to "forgive, forget and seek atonement" rather than call the police to report the abuse.

Mormon Bishop Dennis Casaday and David Christensen, a church leader who supervised Casaday, also were sued for referring the girl to a social worker who was not licensed as a mental health professional in Utah.

In October 1998, a trial court threw out Franco's claims, ruling that Franco was asking the court to impose a secular duty on the religious leaders — something the court said was prohibited by the First Amendment.

Attorneys for Franco appealed the dismissal, but the state Supreme Court sided with the church on March 9.

"It is well settled that ... claims against clerics that require the courts to review and interpret church law, policies or practices ... are barred by the First Amendment," Justice Leonard H. Russon wrote.

"We were expecting a legal decision, and apparently we got a religious one," said attorney Ed Montgomery, who represented Franco. "The court went to great lengths to find in favor of the church."

The justices ignored essential parts of his client's claim, Montgomery said.

"The defendants in this case engaged in a scheme to assure the sexual perpetrator would not be prosecuted and these charges would never come to light," Montgomery said.

The boy accused of engaging in the abuse was never arrested or charged, he said.

But noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has said the government must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion," Utah's high court ruled that scrutinizing the church leaders' actions in the incident would "embroil the courts in establishing the training, skill and standards applicable for members of the clergy."

"This is as impossible as it is unconstitutional," the court wrote.

The justices, all Mormons, were unanimous in their ruling.

Mormon church spokesman Dale Bills did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the ruling.

Montgomery said he was not finished with the matter and would appeal, likely to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Related

Court: Constitution doesn't protect churches from sexual-abuse suits
'The First Amendment does not provide a shield behind which a church may avoid liability' for negligent hiring and supervision of clergy members, Florida high court says.  03.15.02

Cardinal must answer questions in molestation probe
Judge rejects archdiocese's First Amendment argument, clearing way for Boston's highest-ranking Catholic leader to be deposed in sexual-abuse case.  04.19.02

Arizona ruling allows lawsuits over hiring, licensing of church pastors
'Resolution of these claims does not require the interpretation of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law,' state appeals court says in reviving woman's case.  09.21.02

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