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A rare secular dispute, waged in Hartford, Conn., Superior Court, over the duty owed by clergymen to the parishioners they counsel has produced an equally rare result: a $10,000 judgment against a Roman Catholic priest. Ruling on Aug. 17, Judge Trial Referee Jerry Wagner determined that the priest, identified in the case only as “Father David Doe,” breached his fiduciary duty to the plaintiff, a devout Catholic, by abruptly severing their relationship in 1993 after counseling her for 19 months. Crucial to Wagner’s finding was his conclusion that the priest cut off communications with the plaintiff — listed in the decision as “Patricia Poe” — without making it clear that their priest-parishioner relationship remained intact. Poe claimed the incident caused her to separate from the church altogether. Wagner, however, was unconvinced by the plaintiff’s claims that Doe allowed an improper relationship between them to develop. The judge also ruled against the woman’s contention that the priest advised her on subjects for which he was unqualified and that he counseled her longer than he should have. On Sept. 6, her attorney, Cromwell sole practitioner George W. Kramer, filed a motion to reargue the case. In an interview this month, Kramer said that his client lost her whole “identity” when she left the church, and that she deserved “substantially more” in damages. Doe’s lawyer, Joseph T. Sweeney of Hartford’s Halloran & Sage, said he also has filed a limited motion to reargue the case based on the defendant’s position that the court’s adjudication of a religious organization’s internal procedures violates the First Amendment. BEAR HUGS AND BOXER SHORTS Previous to his Aug. 17 decision, Wagner granted the parties’ joint request to seal the case file. But according to Wagner’s decision, Doe — ordained in 1981 — has continuously served at the church since 1991 and is its current pastor. Before 1991, he was a priest in three parishes in the Archdiocese of Hartford. The plaintiff joined Doe’s church in 1978 and had attended Mass there three to five times per week, Wagner wrote. From September 1991 to April 1993, Doe provided free counseling to the woman, who was undergoing a divorce, according to the judge’s factual findings. In 1995, the woman brought suit against the priest for improper counseling and breach of fiduciary duty, claiming that his sudden decision to end their counseling sessions caused her severe emotional damage and compelled her to quit the church. At trial, which was held over six days this past winter, Poe argued that the priest advised her on topics, including domestic violence, that went beyond his training, according to Wagner’s decision. A Protestant minister that she called as an expert testified that clergy have an obligation to limit counseling to moral and spiritual issues, and to refer matters for which they are not trained to professionals. A Catholic priest testifying on Doe’s behalf, however, noted that, as long as a domestic violence situation is not extreme, it is appropriate for a parish priest to provide moral counseling without referring the person to a specialist. As for Poe’s assertion that the priest allowed them to engage in “prolonged bear hugs” and accepted gifts such as pajamas and silk boxer shorts from the woman, Doe testified, according to the decision, that the embraces only lasted a matter of seconds. He also denied receiving boxer shorts from Poe, but conceded that he once found a bag containing white boxer shorts in the church and believed it was an anonymous gift to him given in poor taste, Wagner wrote. After finding the defendant’s testimony regarding the nature of their relationship “more credible,” Wagner turned to Poe’s claim that, under guidelines set by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, the priest should not have engaged in more than six counseling sessions with her without also referring her to a professional. But noting that Roman Catholic priests take a different view — and that imposing such a standard on them would raise First Amendment issues — Wagner again ruled in favor of the defense. “It is difficult to conclude that Father Doe’s behavior justified Poe’s departure from the Catholic Church, particularly in an era when people often change affiliations with a particular house of worship … for personal or trivial reasons,” the judge maintained. But “at the same time, this court believes that Poe suffered emotional damage from the manner in which Father Doe terminated the counseling relationship.” Kramer said Wagner’s ruling sets a precedent by finding a fiduciary relationship existed between the priest and his client based solely on a counseling relationship. To his knowledge, courts in previous cases involving clergy, he said, had only made such a finding when sexual impropriety was proven. Sweeney declined to comment on the ruling. But Jeffrey Hunter Moon, principal litigator for the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington D.C., said Wagner correctly found a distinction between pastoral counselors and individual clergy who engage in private counseling relationships separate from their church duties. In his opinion, however, the judge erred by putting Doe in the latter group even though he didn’t hold himself out as a qualified marital counselor, said Moon, who is not involved in the case.

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