Supreme Court refuses church-state case involving child sex abuse by clergy

US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up an appeal by a man who says he was abused by a Roman Catholic priest decades ago. He sought to challenge the archdiocese's assertion that the First Amendment shields it from a lawsuit.

The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up a case challenging the use of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as a shield to block a negligence lawsuit against a Roman Catholic archdiocese that hired and supervised a priest accused of being a pedophile.

The high court action ends an attempt to hold the Catholic Church legally accountable for alleged sexual abuse that took place more than 40 years ago.

The plaintiff in the case says he was twice sexually abused by a trusted parish priest when he was 13 or 14 years old. The priest, who has since died, was assigned to a Catholic Church in St. Louis.

The plaintiff, identified only as “John Doe,” sued the Archdiocese of St. Louis for negligence for employing the priest in positions where he would have contact with children.

“The Archdiocese was aware of past instances of child sexual abuse involving [Father Thomas] Cooper, and knew that leaving him alone with children was likely to result in harm,” writes Marci Hamilton in her brief on behalf of Mr. Doe.

Because Father Cooper has since died, the civil case was dropped against him. But Doe sought to hold the archdiocese accountable for its failure to protect him and other children.

The archdiocese defended the suit by claiming the First Amendment bars judicial examination of hiring and supervisory decisions within a religious organization. The archdiocese also argued that the suit must be dismissed because the alleged sexual acts did not take place on church property.

According to the lawsuit, Cooper invited Doe to a “clubhouse,” where the priest allegedly engaged in oral rape and attempted anal rape with Doe.

The Missouri courts agreed with the archdiocese and dismissed the lawsuit.

In his appeal to the US Supreme Court, Doe had asked the high court to reverse a 2010 decision by the Missouri Supreme Court finding broad First Amendment protection against government intrusion into church matters.

In throwing out Doe’s lawsuit, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District noted that courts in Missouri have declined to recognize a cause of action for negligent failure to supervise clergy. Such an inquiry would impermissibly inject the courts into matters of religious doctrine, the state’s courts have ruled.

“The [Missouri] Supreme Court has held questions of hiring, ordaining, and retaining clergy, necessarily involve interpretation of religious doctrine, policy, and administration, and such excessive entanglement between church and state has the effect of inhibiting religion, in violation of the First Amendment,” the state appeals court said.

The appeals court added: “Until the Missouri Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court declares differently, [the 2010 state precedent] constitutes controlling law in Missouri, law which we are bound to apply.”

Most states that have addressed the issue have ruled that the First Amendment is not a bar to negligence lawsuits involving religious organizations and the alleged sexual abuse of children.

Ms. Hamilton said that in addition to Missouri, judges in Utah and Wisconsin have ruled that the First Amendment is a bar to similar negligence lawsuits.

Doe’s lawyer argued that Missouri law is also wrong to limit accountability to only those acts of alleged sexual abuse that take place on church property.

“Child sex abuse is not merely a single act – it is a continuum of grooming and building trust,” Hamilton wrote.

“[Doe], a child in a devout Catholic family, who knew Cooper only through the parish, became ensnared in Cooper’s web, because Cooper was an employee of [the archdiocese] acting in his assigned role while befriending, grooming, and seducing [Doe],” she wrote. 

Hamilton said there is no threat to the First Amendment by subjecting the archdiocese to neutral principles of tort law in a negligence lawsuit.

“There is nothing in tort law that mandates that the beliefs of an organization must be taken into account in order to determine whether it has acted negligently in placing employee pedophiles near children,” she wrote. “The facts needed to prove the tort involve conduct, not belief.”

The case was John Doe v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis (11-840).

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