C.A. Broadens Liability of Church for Priest Misconduct

Metropolitan News-Enterprise [Los Angeles CA]

October 21, 2021

Segal Says Archdiocese Can Be Liable for Child Molestation Even if It Did Not Know of Priest’s Pedophilia

The Los Angeles Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church was erroneously awarded summary judgment in an action against it based on sexual child molestation by a priest, the Court of Appeal for this district held yesterday, saying that liability can be found notwithstanding lack of knowledge of the propensities on the part of the particular priest who committed the misconduct.

Framing the issue, Justice John L. Segal of Div. Seven asked:

“Does a church have a duty to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy while the children are attending religious school or participating in other church-sponsored programs?”

He said that [b]ecause the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ we reverse the judgment entered after the trial court… answered that question ‘no’….”

The action was brought on Oct. 16, 2017, by John HG Doe who claimed to have been sexually molested in a bathroom at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in 1988 by Father John Higson. Then age 10, the boy was attending catechism classes.

Trial Court Decision

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Olivia Rosales granted summary judgment to the archdiocese on Feb. 19, 2020. She noted that there is no liability on the part of a defendant for conduct by a third party absent a “special relationship” and cited the June 8, 2001 decision by Div. One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Romero v. Superior Court, which says”

“In addition to the special relationship…there must also be evidence showing facts from which the trier of fact could reasonably infer that [the defendant] had prior actual knowledge, and thus must have known, of the offender’s assaultive propensities.”

Rosales declared:

“[T]he Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to raise a triable issue of material fact with respect to whether [the archdiocese] had actual knowledge, or even reason to know, that Higson committed any sexual abuse/misconduct on before the purported abuse of Plaintiff in August 1988.”

Segal said a “special relationship” did exist between the archdiocese and Doe and “because there was such a relationship, the Archdiocese had a duty to take reasonable measures to protect Doe while he attended classes at Our Lady of the Rosary.” He went on to say that even if the defendant did not know of Higson’s propensities, it know that there had been reports of widespread abuse by priests, satisfying the foreseeability requirement.

Special Relationship

Addressing the question of whether a special relationship existed, he wrote:

“The circumstances in this case satisfy the ‘common features’ of a special relationship. While in catechism classes, Doe and his parents relied on the Archdiocese for Doe’s protection, and the Archdiocese had ‘superior control over the means of protection.’… Like schools, athletics organizations, junior recreational leagues, and youth programs, the Archdiocese, through its teachers and priests, assumed responsibility for the safety of students in its catechism classes….

“Of course, as is the case with those entities and organizations, the Archdiocese does not have a special relationship with ‘the world at large’….or even with all of its parishioners….Thus, the special relationship between the Archdiocese and students participating in its youth programs is appropriately ‘bounded’ by the students’ enrollment in those programs.”

The archdiocese argued that while Doe was a parishioner at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church (located in Paramount), he was not a student there, precluding the finding of a special relationship. Segal disagreed, saying:

“…Doe was more than just a parishioner; he was enrolled in catechism classes at Our Lady of the Rosary. That Doe was not also enrolled as a student in the Our Lady of the Rosary’s parish school did not preclude the Archdiocese from having a special relationship with Doe because of his enrollment in catechism classes, nor did the fact that the alleged assaults did not occur at the parish school. Doe presented evidence, and the Archdiocese did not dispute, the alleged assaults occurred on church property while Doe was in the custody and care of Our Lady of the Rosary.”

Foreseeability Element

While there was no showing that the archdiocese knew of Higson posed a danger to children, Segal said, it could not have been oblivious to a general need to afford protection, explaining:

“Doe presented considerable evidence the Archdiocese was well aware in the late 1980’s that numerous priests had been accused of sexually abusing minors in the Archdiocese and around the country. Between 1967 and 1988, the Archdiocese received 49 reports of sexual abuse by clergy in its parishes and parish schools. One of those reports involved another priest assigned to Our Lady of the Rosary, and in 1987 a priest in the Archdiocese pleaded guilty to sexually abusing minors. The Archdiocese’s various reports and publications also acknowledged widespread clergy sexual abuse before August 1988, when Higson allegedly molested Doe.

“Based on this evidence, 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 specifically.”

Segal went through other factors which spawn exceptions to a duty of care created by a special relationship and found them to be inapplicable.

The case is Doe v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, B305810. The defendant was not José H. Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles, but rather, a religious corporation.

Attorneys on appeal were Pasadena attorney Anthony DeMarco and Alexandria L. Heins of his office, for the plaintiff, and J. Michael Hennigan, Lee W. Potts, and Elizabeth S. Lachman of the downtown Los Angeles form of McKool Smith Hennigan for the archdiocese.

Higson, who was ordained as a priest in 1980,was a defendant in the case but did not appear. Rosales, in her order, noted that according to Doe, he had been shunted to a facility for pedophile priests.

An October 2008 report by the archdiocese listed Higson as among 15 priests in Los Angeles who had been accused of sexual misconduct and were no longer in service. Higson was listed as being in “lay state” (defrocked).

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