Churches Are Open to Suits, Court Says
Sexual Abuse Allegations against Priests Could Now Go to Circuit Level for Trial
By Joe Lambe
Kansas City Star
March 6, 1996
In two key rulings Tuesday, a Missouri appeals court said people who allege they were sexually abused by clergy can sue churches. The rulings by the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City overturned a Jackson County circuit judge who dismissed two lawsuits against the Catholic Church in 1994. Circuit Judge Gene R. Martin ruled the cases would infringe on freedom of religion. Other states use various legal theories for such church liability, but Missouri law has yet to create one. Tuesday's appeals court rulings are intended to do just that, lawyers on both sides said.
Church rights "may conflict with the state's compelling interest to protect its citizens, especially children," wrote appeals Judge Robert G. Ulrich in one opinion.
"Society need not tolerate reckless, willful, or intentional conduct by an ecclesiastical entity that promotes criminal activities injurious to children," he wrote.
Both rulings said churches can be sued for "negligent failure to supervise" employees if they knowingly employ clergy prone to sexual abuse.
In one case, a Kansas City youth and his parents sued the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Rev. Michael Brewer. They allege that Brewer, who has since left the church, molested the then 17-year-old in 1990. Brewer maintains his innocence.
The youth and his parents contend the church probably knew of Brewer's propensities before that and did little to investigate the allegations.
"Forgive and forget," the family alleges church officials told them, saying the youth "will get over it." Nicolas Gray filed the second case. He contends the Rev. Thomas J. Ward had sex with him for about 10 years, starting when he was 14 years old.
Ward, who also maintains his innocence, is on sick leave from the church.
James Tierney, attorney for the diocese in both cases, noted that the rulings only return the cases to Circuit Court for trial. Lawyers for the plaintiffs must prove sexual assaults happened and, if they did, that the diocese knew anything about such propensities in the priests.
James R. Wyrsch, attorney for both priests, said the rulings were beneficial for his clients because they reduced the number of civil counts against them. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said verdicts against the men alone would mean little since they are not wealthy. Sly James, the attorney who filed the lawsuit against Brewer and the diocese, said the wide range of counts filed were a shotgun approach to find the right legal path against the church. "The diocese wanted the door closed, and we wanted it open," James said. "We don't need 15 counts to win - just one." In James' case, an appeals court panel also allowed counts against the church for "negligent infliction of emotional distress" and "intentional infliction of emotional distress." The rulings are critical, said Robert Wells, Gray's attorney. "They show no one is above the law. "I'm confident we can show the priest's predispositions were well known among his associates," Wells said. Tierney and Wyrsch said they have not decided whether they will ask for a rehearing before the entire appeals court or a transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Ultimately the state Supreme Court might have to resolve the matter. A December ruling on a similar appeals court case in St. Louis rejected "negligent supervision" and instead allowed that lawsuit to precede under other legal theories.
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