Appeals court rules L.A. archdiocese may be sued for alleged molestation – could impact Bay Area cases

San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco CA]

October 21, 2021

By Bob Egelko

A Catholic archdiocese can be sued for a priest’s alleged molestation of a young student even if the priest had no record of sexual abuse, a state appeals court has ruled in a Los Angeles case that could also affect dozens of pending Bay Area lawsuits.

A man identified only as John Doe said he was a 10-year-old catechism student in August 1988 when the Rev. John Higson assaulted him in a restroom of a church in Paramount, southeast of Los Angeles. He said Higson groped his genitals, forced him to perform oral sex, and told him, “Every boy does this in order to do their first Communion.”

Doe did not report the incident at the time and did not sue the Los Angeles Archdiocese until 2017. His lawyer, Anthony DeMarco, said Higson, ordained as a priest in 1980, was eventually removed from the priesthood after other allegations against him surfaced, but was never prosecuted because legal deadlines had expired. The archdiocese said, however, that Higson was placed on leave in 1998 after reports of “consensual relationships with adult women,” and left the priesthood on his own in 2003.

In seeking dismissal of the suit, the archdiocese denied that it had been negligent in supervising Higson or failing to protect Doe from him and said it had no reason to know the priest posed a threat. A Superior Court judge agreed and dismissed the suit but was overruled Wednesday by the Second District Court of Appeal, which said the archdiocese had known for decades that youths at its schools needed protection from abusive clergy.

Between 1967 and 1988, the court said, the archdiocese received 49 reports of sexual abuse by clergy at parishes and parish schools. One priest pleaded guilty in 1987 to sexual assault on a minor. And a report to the National Council of Catholic Bishops in 1989 said abuse cases could cost the Los Angeles Archdiocese $1 billion over 10 years.

“It was reasonably foreseeable that minors attending catechism classes in 1988 might be sexually molested by a priest, even though the Archdiocese did not have knowledge of prior sexual misconduct by Higson,” Justice John Segal said in a 3-0 ruling reinstating the lawsuit.

He cited the state Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling allowing a suit against UCLA by a laboratory student who was stabbed by another student who had mental problems. Although classroom violence is rare, the high court said, it is not unforeseeable, and the university has both a legal and a moral responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect its students.

“We attribute some moral blame to the Archdiocese because it took only minimal action to prevent sexual abuse by priests, even after receiving dozens of reports of abuse,” Segal said. Noting that families turn to the church for spiritual and moral guidance, he said, requiring church officials to take protective measures such as “training, educating and warning students, parents and teachers … is not too onerous a burden.”

The court noted that the archdiocese had established such a program, called Safeguard the Children, in 2002.

In response to the ruling, the archdiocese said it was reviewing the case but had not received any reports that Higson had engaged in “sexual abuse involving minors.” The archdiocese said it was “committed to the safety and well-being of the children” in parish schools, and that anyone found to have harmed a child will be “permanently removed from serving in any capacity” in the organization.

DeMarco, John Doe’s lawyer, said the case is one of hundreds of similar lawsuits against the Catholic Church in legal proceedings across California. About 300 cases from Los Angeles and Orange counties are pending before a Los Angeles County judge, he said, and many dozens, perhaps 100, have been coordinated before a judge in Alameda County against the San Francisco Archdiocese and other dioceses in Northern and Central California.

Additional suits can be filed through the end of 2022, DeMarco said, and all will be governed by the legal standards in Wednesday’s ruling unless it is overturned on appeal.

He said John Doe has had a difficult life since his childhood molestation but has been treated for alcohol abuse and is living with his family in Southern California.Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @BobEgelko