31 Oct 2010

Priest cannot sue 2 brothers who say he molested them, court rules

The Chicago Tribune - June 11, 2009

By Manya A. Brachear | Tribune reporter

In the first ruling of its kind in Illinois, a state Appellate Court decided Wednesday that a Roman Catholic priest could not sue two brothers who say he molested them.

Enabling Rev. Robert Stepek to sue the men who cooperated with a church investigation would infringe on religious liberties granted by the U.S. Constitution, a three-judge appeals court said in its decision to order the trial court to throw out Stepek's lawsuit. Allowing the suit would require a court to examine how the church disciplines clergy -- a move that would conflict with the "free exercise [of religion] clause of the 1st Amendment," the ruling said.

In 2006, Stepek was removed from the pulpit at St. Albert the Great Church in Burbank after a review by the Chicago archdiocese determined there was reasonable cause to suspect that sexual abuse of minors occurred when he was at St. Symphorosa Parish in Chicago in the early 1980s.

Shortly after his removal, Stepek sued his accusers, contending the brothers made false and defamatory allegations as retaliation for prior disagreements. The brothers filed a counterclaim.

Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Larsen denied several requests to dismiss the case or refer it to the Appellate Court. Attorneys for the archdiocese and one of the brothers petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court, which, in a rare move, ordered the appellate review.

Jim Geoly, an attorney for the archdiocese who argued before the court, hailed its ruling as a victory for religious organizations and victims of clergy misconduct.

But Stepek's attorney, Phillip Zisook, said the Appellate Court should have considered the substance of the allegations and drawn a distinction between ecclesiastical and criminal misconduct.

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