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  Archdiocese, Scouts Subject to Sex Abuse Liability

By Charles E. Beggs
Associated Press State & Local Wire
April 8, 1999

The Archdiocese of Portland and the Boy Scouts of America could be liable for damages for alleged child sex abuse by a former priest and a former Scout leader, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in separate cases on Thursday.

Lawyers said the decision looks to put Oregon in the forefront of broadening liability in such cases.

The Supreme Court didn't rule that the Roman Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts are financially liable, but said there are sufficient grounds to return the cases to the circuit courts to decide that.

The unanimous ruling went beyond the well-established legal standard that employers are liable for damages caused by workers "acting within the scope of employment."

The Supreme Court said the church and the Scouts could be liable because they put people in positions of trust that resulted in child sexual abuse.

Portland attorney David Slader said the ruling is the first in which a state's high court has said an employer can be responsible "when an employee abuses the power they are given by the employer to care for children."

Slader filed a brief in the cases on behalf of the National Alliance of Sexual Assault Coalitions and several similar state and national groups.

The lawsuits were brought by two men who seek a total of more than $ 30 million for abuse they say they suffered as long as 30 years ago.

The Supreme Court reversed lower courts, which had dismissed the cases. The cases now return to circuit courts in Washington and Multnomah counties for further proceedings.

Wilsonville lawyer Kelly Clark, who represents both plaintiffs, said the Supreme Court decision means employers in such circumstances no longer can claim ignorance.

"The court said it's not enough for institutions to say they didn't know," he said. "The court said, 'It's your business to know."

' Steven Fearing claims he was abused in the early 1970s by Melvin Bucher, a former priest at St. Anthony's Parish in Tigard. Fearing sought $ 10 million in damages from the Portland archdiocese and other church organizations.

Fearing settled earlier with Bucher and the other organizations; that leaves only the archdiocese as a defendant in the case.

Fearing contends that Bucher's employment put him in a position of trust that led to his sexually abusing Fearing.

The archdiocese argued that on those grounds, many employers could be held liable for employees' misconduct just by giving them the opportunity to be alone with third parties.

But the Supreme Court said a jury could infer that Bucher's performance of his pastoral duties "were a necessary precursor to the sexual abuse and that the assaults thus were a direct outgrowth of and were engendered by conduct that was within the scope of Bucher's employment."

The archdiocese issued a statement Thursday afternoon in response to the ruling, saying the decision addressed only a legal theory "and did not evaluate the specific facts of this case."

The archdiocese said it still "believes it will prevail" when the case returns to circuit court and the facts are evaluated.

State law extends the usual statute of limitations for filing damage lawsuits when an adult child abuse victim does not link emotional problems and the cause of the abuse until many years later.

The other case involves Daniel Lourim, who alleged in a $ 16 million lawsuit that he was sexually abused in the 1960s by former volunteer Boy Scout troop leader John Swensen.

Lourim settled out of court with Swensen. His remaining claims seek damages from the Boy Scouts and the Scouts' Cascade Pacific Council.

A jury could conclude that Swensen's sexual activity with Lourim "was the direct result of the relationship sponsored and encouraged by the Boy Scouts," the Supreme Court said.

 
 

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