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Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles Liable for Sexual Abuse Even Absent Prior Knowledge of Abuser

Sexual-Abuse-Lawsuits-Los-AngelesThe widespread problem of clergy sexual abuse of children within the Catholic church has been well-documented and broadly reported in the news media over the last couple of decades. People who are the victims of sexual assault can pursue compensation through civil sexual assault lawsuits. The California Court of Appeal recently considered a case in which the trial court found that the Archdiocese did not have a duty to protect a minor during the late 1980s because of its lack of knowledge about a priest’s past misconduct in Doe v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B305810.[1]

Factual and procedural background

John HG Doe attended classes at the Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church during the late 1980s. The classes were held in a room located off of the sanctuary. When Doe was 10 in 1988, he asked to go to the bathroom. While he was in a bathroom stall, Father John Higson, an associate pastor who was not Doe’s teacher, entered the stall, groped Doe’s genitals, and forced Doe to perform oral sex on Higson. According to Doe, Higson told him that all of the boys did that as a part of their first communion. When Doe returned to class, he was upset. However, his teacher did not ask him why he was upset, and he did not tell the teacher what had happened to him.

According to Doe, a second incident occurred around the same time. He again did not tell his teacher or anyone else at the church. He didn’t tell his father that he had been sexually assaulted until 2014.

The Archdiocese first began receiving reports of sexual abuse by priests in 1967. It had received 25 reports by 1984 about sexual abuse by priests within the Archdiocese and was aware that sexual abuse by priests was a widespread problem within the Catholic church by 1985. A 1985 report informed the Archdiocese that clergy abuse of children was a prevalent issue, and the report noted that the expected liability for the Catholic church was at least $1 billion over the next 10 years.

From 1984 to 1988, the Archdiocese received another 32 reports of sexual abuse by priests within the Archdiocese, including a report of a different priest at Our Lady of the Rosary grabbing young boys and forcibly hugging them. A priest at a different parish within the Archdiocese was convicted in 1987 of sexually molesting children. The Archdiocese purchased sex abuse insurance in 1987 or 1988 and began developing sexual abuse procedures meant to prevent clergy abuse from occurring. Under the policy, priests were instructed to avoid doing anything that could be perceived as questionable conduct, including tackling, hugging, or wrestling children and not to have them stay overnight in their rooms in the rectory and to always have a minimum of one adult parent present on trips with children.

A policy change was made in 1994 to expand the efforts of the Archdiocese to educate priests and parents about sexual abuse.[2] The updated policy also established a system for investigating allegations of clergy sexual abuse and screening processes for priests assigned to serve within the Archdiocese.

In 2002, the “Safeguard the Children” program was created by the Archdiocese. This program was designed to educate the community, including children, parents, and clergy, about the signs of potential abuse. It also distributed a pamphlet about boundaries to each of the 288 parishes within the Archdiocese and instituted training for clergy and a mandatory reporting system for sexual abuse.

Doe filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese on Oct. 16, 2017, alleging that the church had a duty to protect him from sexual abuse during the period he was entrusted to its care. Doe also argued that the Archdiocese failed to provide its duty of care to protect him from abuse and to educate parents and children about the dangers of clergy sexual abuse of children.

The Archdiocese filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it did not have a duty of care to protect Doe because the church did not know that Higson had previously engaged in misconduct with children. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no issue of triable material fact because Doe could not show that the Archdiocese knew or should have known about Higson’s propensity for sexually abusing children during the late 1980s. Doe filed an appeal.

Issue: Does a church have a duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse while they are attending religion classes or are participating in church-sponsored activities even when the church does not know of a particular priest’s potential for sexual abuse?

The Court of Appeal considered whether a church or diocese has a duty to protect children when they attend religion classes or other religious activities when it does not know about a person’s past misconduct or propensity for abuse. The trial court found that a duty does not exist when the church did not or reasonably could not have known about a priest’s propensity for sexually abusing children.

Rule: A plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty of care to protect children in its care before a finding of negligence.

Doe alleged two causes of action, including negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of Higson by the Archdiocese and negligent failure to warn, train, or educate children, parents, and church employees. However, he only argued that the court erred in regards to the negligent failure to warn, train, or educate, so that is the only cause of action the Court of Appeal addressed.

Analysis

The court began by considering whether the Archdiocese had a duty to protect children entrusted to its care.[3] The duty exists in situations in which the plaintiff is entitled to protection from the conduct of the defendant. A general duty of care only applies when the defendant has created a risk of harm to the plaintiff. However, a defendant may be found to have a duty to protect a plaintiff from harm by a third party in some cases in which the defendant did not affirmatively create the risk of harm.

The Supreme Court of California established a two-step test to determine whether a defendant had a duty to protect a plaintiff from harm caused by a third party. The court must first determine whether or not a special relationship existed between the plaintiff and defendant and then review the factors under Rowland v. Christian, 69 Cal. 2d 108 (1968).[4]

In reviewing the first step, the California Court of Appeal found that the Archdiocese did have a special relationship with Doe. The court noted that special relationships and a duty to protect children from harm by third parties have been found between children and adult caretakers in multiple cases. The court noted that while Doe was attending catechism classes, both Doe and his parents relied on the Archdiocese to protect him from harm.

The court then considered whether the Rowland factors justified limited the Archdiocese’s duty to protect Doe. It considered whether the type of harm suffered by Doe was reasonably foreseeable. It found that the trial court erred by considering whether the injuries to Doe caused by Higson particular were foreseeable instead of considering the foreseeability of the type of harm caused to Doe. It noted that the Archdiocese had received numerous reports of clergy sexual abuse dating back to the late 1960s but did not take steps to protect Doe or other minors from the risk of sexual abuse by priests.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered it to vacate the motion for summary judgment. The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings, and Doe was awarded his costs on the appeal.

Talk to an Experienced Sexual Assault Attorney

If you have been the victim of sexual abuse by a priest or another person in a position of authority, you might be entitled to pursue compensation through a sexual assault civil lawsuit. Contact the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC at 866.966.5240 to schedule a confidential, free consultation.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2021/b305810.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2021-10-22-personal-injury-e764a31168&utm_content=text-case-title-5

[2] https://www.victimslawyer.com/sexual-assault-and-abuse.html

[3] https://www.victimslawyer.com/sexual-assault-and-battery-claims-in-california.html

[4] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=13675261667224866941&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

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