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Religious groups have been rocked in recent years by multimillion-dollar judgments for sexual misconduct by clergy and other behavior found to be outrageous or negligent by judges or juries.

"There is no question that sexual misconduct as related to clergy is a hot issue," said Stephen F. English, a Portland, Ore., lawyer.English was a co-chairman of the American Bar Association's second annual national institute on tort and religion, held in Boston Thursday and Friday.

The institute brought together 100 lawyers involved in suing, defending or counseling churches, as well as law professors, insurance executives and clergy.

In a few lawsuits, awards have been so high that churches have gone bankrupt. Premiums for clergy malpractice insurance are climbing to a point where some analysts see a threat to traditional church missions.

Lawsuits have mushroomed so fast that a new specialty has arisen within the legal profession: lawyers expert in religion and tort law.

Tort is a legal term meaning a wrongful act, injury or damage for which damages can be sought.

"We are not here to explore the use of tort law as a weapon but to explore the latest developments in the law," Leonard Ring, chairman of the association's section on tort and insurance practice, told the group.

A different view was offered by the Rev. Bernard J. Bush, a psychotherapist from Montville, Conn., who counsels emotionally disturbed priests.

When he told fellow priests where he was going, he said they responded, "Oh, you are going swimming with the sharks?

"This conference on tort and religion is very frightening to them," he said.

"The Our Father says, `Forgive us our trespasses,' and that means forgive even the child abuser, but when tort law takes over it's forgive us our sins but sue the hell out of the trespassers."

Lawyers, he said, often advise church leaders not to deal compassionately with the victims of sexual misconduct by offering to help them because such a step might be used as admission of guilt by the church.

The Roman Catholic Church is trying to address the problem by screening priests more carefully, counseling them better and taking action immediately when misconduct charges are raised, he said.

"The church is ashamed. I am ashamed" of these misconduct cases, said Bush, who advises bishops on how to set up response teams when charges surface.

The misconduct can be with children or adults. Besides child molestation, other common cases involve women who seek counsel from a clergyman and succumb to his sexual advances.

As authority figures, clergymen, like psychiatrists and other professional counselors, are held accountable in law.

John F. Cleary said that when he went to work in 1975 as general counsel for the Church Mutual Insurance Company of Merrill, Wis., civil suits for sexual misconduct were non-existent. The rare action that was taken was usually a criminal prosecution, he said.

"Today the number of credible sexual abuse and misconduct cases is astounding," Cleary said.

He said that his company, which insures 46,000 churches, mainly Protestant, has handled 200 sexual abuse lawsuits in the past several years.