When a man in Springfield sued the Catholic Church over abuse he said he suffered at the hands of a bishop in the 1960s, the church tried to use a now-abolished law to claim it cannot be sued because of its status as a nonprofit organization. GBH News legal analyst and Northeastern University Law Professor Daniel Medwed joined Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about how the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in that case, along with a few other summer rulings. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Jeremy Siegel: It looks, Daniel, like it's been a fairly busy summer for the Supreme Judicial Court. Tell us about some of the cases that have caught your eye.

Daniel Medwed: According to the court's own rules, the SJC likes to issue opinions within 130 days of oral argument. What that means practically is that we're seeing opinions now in cases that were argued in the winter and the spring, and it's a great antidote to SJC withdrawal for the handful of us who like to watch the court.

The case that really caught my eye is a case called John Doe v. the Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield. And here's what happened: An anonymous plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the church based on allegations that when he was an altar boy in the 1960s, he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the bishop of Springfield at the time, Christopher Weldon. Among other claims, he's seeking damages for the sexual abuse, as well as negligent hiring and supervision of Weldon. The church has contested these claims and is actually trying to block the lawsuit from going to trial.

Paris Alston: Well, we know this is not the first time that a case like this has come up in court. We're familiar with it here in Massachusetts, Daniel. So what was the basis for the church's challenge here and what could prevent a trial from happening?

Medwed: Well, the church raised two main arguments. The first one is known as the doctrine of church autonomy. It's grounded in the First Amendment. And basically this doctrine suggests that trial judges in civil cases may not interfere too much with the religious activities of a faith-based organization for fear of intruding upon the free exercise clause, the First Amendment clause that says that you may all freely exercise your religion in the United States. The second doctrine is something known as charitable immunity. It was actually abolished in 1971, but before that, charities could be immune, meaning not liable, for certain lawsuits if the underlying action related to their charitable mission.

"Charitable immunity was actually abolished in 1971, but before that, charities could be immune, meaning not liable, for certain lawsuits if the underlying action related to their charitable mission."
-Daniel Medwed, GBH News legal analyst

The rationale for this is that it could deplete their coffers and undercut their charitable goal and really harm all of us if charities lost a lot of money in civil lawsuits. Now, in this case, from the summer, the SJC said we will not address the issue of church autonomy yet, it's not ripe for review. Let's wait and see what happens at trial. If the judge does interfere with religious activities, we can rule on that on appeal. But the SJC, however, did say they will look at charitable immunity. That issue should be resolved now.

Siegel: Before we get into that. Daniel, can you explain how charitable immunity could apply here? You mentioned that it was abolished in 1971. Could that even apply to the church in this case, to make it immune from liability?

Medwed: It could. And here's why: When the legislature abolished charitable immunity in 1971, the law was made prospective. That's sort of fancy legalese for 'future-oriented.' You could only apply the new law to incidents that arose after its enactment, post-1971 incidents. But for events that occurred prior to abolition, there was no retroactive application of this law, which means that charitable immunity, in theory at least, is pertinent for events that transpired in the 1960s, like the allegations here. So in theory, charitable immunity could be in play in this case.

Alston: So Daniel, how did the SJC end up ruling on that charitable immunity issue? Did it find the church immune and essentially keep the lawsuit from proceeding?

Medwed: It didn't. What the court did is that it canvassed all of that pre-1971 case law. And it found precedent for the proposition that for charitable immunity to apply, for charities to not be liable in civil lawsuits, the underlying action must relate to the charitable mission or the charitable activities. And in this opinion, in the words of Justice David Lowy, who wrote the majority opinion, Bishop Weldon's alleged activities had nothing to do with the church's charitable mission. They just had to do with his own behavior, and therefore the church would not be immune from a suit related to his activities.

"Bishop Weldon's alleged activities had nothing to do with the church's charitable mission. They just had to do with his own behavior."
-GBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed

That said, the SJC noted that the claim of negligent hiring and supervision of Weldon did fall within the purview of the church's charitable activities, because hiring and supervising is part of a charity's mission, its personnel. So that claim could not go forward. But all of the other claims can go forward. And there may very well be a trial in Springfield in the near future, something we'll all watch for.

Siegel: So, Daniel, are there any other notable opinions in recent weeks that that you've come across?

Medwed: Yes, there are a couple of others. The first that caught my eye is that the SJC ruled in favor of Boston in its long-running dispute with Quincy, I believe we've talked about this before, over the rebuilding of the Long Island Bridge to set up a drug treatment facility on the island. So the SJC ruled in favor of Boston. At least legally speaking, that's a green light to proceed and rebuild the bridge.

The second case that caught my eye is one called Commonwealth v. Moreau. It concerns when the police may force a driver who's suspected of drunk driving to take a blood test. A blood test as a more accurate, but more intrusive, way of figuring out the blood alcohol content than, say, a breathalyzer.

A 2020 case said the police have to both have a warrant, probable cause of the drunk driving and consent of the driver to do this. In this Moreau case from the summer, it involved a permutation of that principle: What if the police direct medical personnel or a hospital administrator to do the test? What did the police need? And in this decision, the court said they also need a warrant and consent from the driver to get that blood test.

Alston: Does that mean that they can refuse if the driver doesn't consent?

Medwed: Yes. And the idea behind it is that blood tests are really intrusive. Not only can you get a lot of genetic information out of someone's blood, but it can be physically painful. It actually invades your bodily autonomy. So I think this is really a victory for for individual liberty and privacy in the Commonwealth.