St. Louis Judge Throws out Most of Priest Sex Abuse Lawsuit

By Kelly Wiese
St. Louis Daily Record
June 4, 2008

Finding that to do otherwise would violate the separation between church and state, a St. Louis judge has thrown out most of a lawsuit against the area's Catholic Archdiocese alleging a priest abused a young girl in the 1950s.

The plaintiff, identified only as Mary Doe, now lives in California, and the priest she alleges abused her at Holy Guardian Angels Church in St. Louis died in 1983, and that parish closed in 1991. The lawsuit was filed in 2005 against the archdiocese and Archbishop Raymond Burke.

The church asked the court to dismiss five of six counts, and St. Louis Circuit Judge David Dowd granted that motion in late May.

Attorneys for the archdiocese and the plaintiff did not return calls seeking comment by press time Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said it does not comment on pending cases.

In the lawsuit, the woman, who is now 54, alleges the Rev. William Poepperling sexually abused her when she was roughly 4 to 6 years old and belonged to his parish. The one count still pending, according to court records, alleges intentional failure to supervise clergy.

On the count alleging child sexual abuse, the woman argued that the church, while not the physical perpetrator of the abuse, was civilly liable for "aiding and abetting" the priest. She alleged the church helped Poepperling conceal his actions and avoid criminal investigation.

But Dowd said no appellate court in Missouri has addressed whether "collateral defendants" such as the archdiocese can be held liable under the child sex abuse civil law through an aiding and abetting theory. In other states, he said, some courts have allowed such claims while others have rejected them.

But he found the claim could not proceed, saying that to face accessory liability, the church would need to have omitted performing a specific duty imposed by law. Even if such a duty were spelled out in law, he said, that would go against the First Amendment protection against state interference in church matters.

"The Missouri Legislature cannot impose such a duty on the archdiocese ... without violating the U.S. Constitution and thus exceeding its lawful authority," wrote Dowd, who is described on the court Web site as Catholic.

But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said courts nationwide have gone the other direction.

"All around the country, judges have increasingly found for years and years that the First Amendment protects belief, not action," he said. "Church officials can't recruit, educate, ordain, train, hire, supervise, transfer, shield and lie about a predator priest and then claim no responsibility for his crimes. You just can't have it both ways. "

The judge said another count, breach of fiduciary duty, also was improper. He said clergy and religious organizations are not immune from civil liability, but Missouri courts have not recognized the fiduciary count in clergy sex abuse cases.

The suit also alleged the church was negligent by not protecting the girl from sexual abuse. The judge said determining if negligence exists requires looking at whether a reasonably prudent person would have anticipated and prevented the danger.

"In order to determine how a 'reasonably prudent archdiocese' would act, a court would have to excessively entangle itself in religious doctrine, policy and administration," the judge said in his ruling.

The negligent supervision claims also fail, the judge found. The Missouri Supreme Court, in Gibson v. Brewer, previously ruled that determining whether a church's supervision of a clergy member is reasonable is prohibited by the First Amendment, he said.

The woman's attorneys said in response to the motion to dismiss that the Gibson decision went too far in interpreting First Amendment issues.

"Gibson mishandled the overall First Amendment issues in asserting negligence claims against religious entities for hiring and firing decisions, opting for a course that runs upstream from the rest of the country and the federal courts," they wrote.

The woman's attorneys also said in court filings that a federal court in Missouri last year declined to dismiss a case, finding a religious entity could be held liable for its clergy's acts and the First Amendment does not bar negligence claims against churches.

"No reference to religious tenet is required to determine that sexual molestation of a child is wrong," the filing states.

The woman has several attorneys, among them Kenneth Chackes and Susan Carlson of Chackes, Carlson, Spritzer and Ghio in St. Louis; Jeff Anderson and Patrick Noaker at Jeff Anderson and Associates in St. Paul, Minn.; and Rebecca Randles and Luis Mata of Randles, Mata & Brown in Kansas City.

The church is being represented by Edward Goldenhersh, Bernard Huger and Kirsten Ahmad of Greensfelder, Hemker and Gale in St. Louis.


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