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A 15-year sentence for a participant in a kidnapping scheme whose mastermind is serving only 5 years because he cooperated with prosecutors is unduly harsh, a divided state appellate court has ruled.

The appeals court reduced the accomplice’s sentence to 7 years.

Two dissenting judges on the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, panel argued that the defendant, Danny Clark, 30, of Rochester, had his chance to plead, chose not to and should not benefit from the fact that his co-defendant cooperated.

In decisions handed down last week, the Fourth Department also ruled in three clergy misconduct cases, affirming lower court dismissals of all three.

The majority in People v. Clark, KA 03-01843, affirmed Mr. Clark’s conviction of robbery and kidnapping but reduced his sentence in the interests of justice in an unsigned memorandum opinion.

“Defendant, who has no prior felony convictions and no history of violent crime, was offered a sentence of a determinate term of incarceration of 3-1/2 years as part of a plea bargain,” Justices Samuel L. Green, Elizabeth W. Pine and Jerome C. Gorski wrote. “The co-defendant who masterminded the criminal acts and who also has a long history of violent crimes and felony convictions was sentenced to a term of incarceration of only five years as a result of his cooperation with the prosecution.”

Monroe County Court Judge Frank P. Geraci’s leveling of a 15-year sentence after Mr. Clark failed to convince a jury of his innocence seemed “unusually harsh and severe,” they said.

Dissenting Justices Henry J. Scudder and Leo F. Hayes were not so moved. The fact that a sentence offered with a plea bargain was substantially less than the one imposed after trial was not an abuse of discretion, they wrote.

They quoted with favor Judge Geraci’s comment at sentencing that “the message has to be that when you participate in that [type of conduct], no matter what your role, you go to jail for a long period of time.”

The Fourth Department also split 3-2 in affirming Supreme Court Justice Andrew V. Siracuse’s dismissal of a suit by a woman and her husband against the pastor of an East Rochester church and officials of the United Methodist Church for mental anguish they suffered when the pastor allegedly lured the wife into an adulterous affair while counseling her.

The court also unanimously affirmed the dismissals of two suits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester by men who allege priests sexually abused them when they were boys in the late 1960s in one case and between 1975 and 1986 in the other. The actions were dismissed as barred by the statute of limitations in both cases: John Doe v. Holy See, CA 03-01877, and Mars v. Diocese of Rochester, CA 03-01831.

Abuse of Trust Alleged

In Wende C. v. United Methodist Church, CA 03-01335, the majority found that Justice Siracuse had properly dismissed Mrs. C.’s allegations of sexual battery as either time-barred or negated by evidence establishing the sexual contact was consensual. Her claim of clergy malpractice was also properly dismissed because no such action is recognized in New York, the court said, citing the Appellate Division, Second Department’s ruling in a 2000 decision, Langford v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, 271 AD2d 494.

Nor could Mrs. C. bring a separate action for breach of fiduciary duty, the majority said, because there was “no meaningful analytical distinction” between it and clergy malpractice.

“An inquiry into whether a cleric violated a fiduciary duty to a congregant would involve the court in the same excessive entanglement in religious affairs as an inquiry into whether a cleric violated a duty of due care owed to the congregant. In either case the court would be required to ‘venture into forbidden ecclesiastical terrain,’ ” said justices Donald J. Wisner, Robert G. Hurlbutt and L. Paul Kehoe, citing Langford.

Presiding Justice Eugene F. Pigott and Justice Scudder disagreed, first pointing out that the majority had inappropriately determined the credibility of Mrs. C.’s allegations before discovery in the case. They also would recognize Mrs. C.’s breach of fiduciary duty claim based on a “particularized relationship of trust.”

“[W]hile the existence of a clergy malpractice claim would depend on defining and evaluating a cleric’s religious duty, a claim for breach of fiduciary duty depends only upon an evaluation of whether a relationship of trust and confidence exists and whether that trust and confidence have been abused,” the dissenters said.

“[P]robing the circumstances of this case does not require an examination of the religious beliefs held by plaintiffs or defendants. Instead, the only inquiry required would be whether Wende C. or her husband, plaintiff, David C., placed a level of trust in defendant T. with regard to their marriage and their separate counseling relationships with him, and whether defendant T. abused that trust,” they added.

Christina A. Agola of Rochester, who represented Mr. and Mrs. C., said her clients would file a notice of appeal with the New York Court of Appeals.

Defense counsel in the Wende C. case included Bond, Schoeneck & King of Syracuse for the Western New York Conference of United Methodist Church; Trevett, Lenweaver & Salzer of Rochester for Hae-Jong Kim, bishop of the New York West Area of the United Methodist Church; and Wolford & LeClair of Rochester for the Hosanna Junction United Methodist Church, where the pastor worked.

In People v. Clark, Mr. Clark was represented by Howard K. Broder of Rochester. Assistant District Attorney Stephen X. O’Brien handled the appeal for Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Green.

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