New Jersey Supreme Court May Soon Hear Claims in Archdiocese of Philadelphia Child Abuse Case

TRENTON (NJ) [Atlanta, GA]

April 9, 2024

By Colleen Murphy

“We look forward to explaining to the Supreme Court why the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is subject to New Jersey’s jurisdiction when priests in doing their jobs were taking children to New Jersey and abusing them there,” David Inscho and Andra Laidacker of Kline & Specter said.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently granted a motion for leave to appeal in D.T. v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a case filed over the alleged sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest which was dismissed in the Appellate Division for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The plaintiff’s claim alleged that he was sexually abused by a former Catholic priest, Michael McCarthy, in New Jersey in 1971, when he was 14 years old. At that time, McCarthy was a priest and teacher in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is named as a defendant in the case. D.T.’s claims against the archdiocese were dismissed by the Atlantic County Superior Court. In December, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s order for lack of personal jurisdiction because no facts established that the parish purposely availed itself of any benefits in or from New Jersey related to McCarthy’s alleged abuse, according to the opinion.

In his motion for leave to appeal that decision, D.T. presented the following question to the New Jersey Supreme Court: “Is the Archdiocese of Philadelphia subject to New Jersey’s specific jurisdiction given that: (1) the Archdiocese purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting business in New Jersey, when its employee-priest McCarthy provided mentorship and counseling services within the scope of his actual or apparent agency in New Jersey; and (2) D.T.’s claims arise out of or relate to the Archdiocese’s activities in New Jersey?”

The plaintiff’s motion argued that D.T.’s case presents an issue of first impression on the jurisdictional questions in the context of litigation involving clergy sex abuse.

D.T. alleged that the defendants negligently provided pastoral services to him when McCarthy abused him in New Jersey. D.T. further contended that the archdiocese was vicariously liable for McCarthy’s tortious acts and that it was negligent in hiring and supervising the priest. He also asserted a claim for assault and battery against McCarthy.

He contended that McCarthy was an “agent” of the archdiocese, and that through his actions, it was subject to specific jurisdiction in New Jersey. He asserted that the archdiocese ”purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in New Jersey through the conduct of priests like McCarthy.” D.T. further contended that McCarthy’s ”pastoral and mentoring activities” were not beyond the scope of the agency the archdiocese conferred on him as a priest, according to the opinion. He also argued that the trial court erred in focusing only on McCarthy’s abusive actions in New Jersey.

“Having considered these arguments in light of the record and governing law, we reject them,” Appellate Division Judge Robert J. Gilson said. “The facts disclosed during jurisdictional discovery established that the Archdiocese is not subject to jurisdiction in New Jersey because it did not purposefully avail itself of activities in New Jersey sufficient to satisfy the ‘minimum contacts’ required for personal jurisdiction.”

Gilson was joined by Judges Maritza Berdote Byrne and Avis Bishop-Thompson.

Despite the fact that the archdiocese formerly owned property in New Jersey and that it supervised McCarthy, specific jurisdiction was not established, according to the opinion.

“Our holding is also consistent with rulings by other courts that have considered whether Catholic dioceses, including the Archdiocese, are subject to personal jurisdiction because of alleged sexual abuses committed by priests. Like this case, those cases depended on the specific jurisdictional facts involved,” Gilson wrote, citing a 2015 Nevada Supreme Court decision in Catholic Diocese of Green Bay v. Doe 119, which held that there was no personal jurisdiction over the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay because the priest alleged to have committed the sexual abuse unilaterally sought employment in Nevada and the diocese did not maintain control or supervision of the priest’s day-to-day work.

Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal held in Archdiocese of Detroit v. Green in 2004 that there was no basis for jurisdiction on an agency theory when a priest unilaterally moved to Florida and the diocese later gave permission for his incardination without knowledge of the allegations of sexual misconduct, the appellate opinion said.

In New Jersey, adult survivors have a longer period to file claims against their abusers and the institutions that were supposed to protect them after Senate Bill 477 was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in May 2019. The law opened a two-year window for survivors to file their case no matter when the abuse occurred. Claims were limited by the window, which opened Dec. 1, 2019, and closed on Nov. 30, 2021. Claimants could file until they reached the age of 55 or seven years from the date they discover the cause of their injuries, whichever is later.

“We look forward to explaining to the Supreme Court why the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is subject to New Jersey’s jurisdiction when priests in doing their jobs were taking children to New Jersey and abusing them there,” D.T.’s counsel, David Inscho and Andra Laidacker of Kline & Specter, said in an emailed statement to the Law Journal. “In 1971, McCarthy abused D.T. in New Jersey while acting as a priest and an employee of the Archdiocese. We look forward to advocating on behalf of D.T., and by extension other children like him who were abused at the New Jersey shore by priests of the Archdiocese.”

Counsel to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Nicholas M. Centrella of Clark Hill, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.