Church Liability Ruling Hailed As 'New Ground'

By Robert Patrick
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 16, 2007 E90A2C07707FB3B5862572DD000C6082?OpenDocument

St. Louis — Most of a sex abuse lawsuit against a former St. Louis priest has been thrown out of court, but victims' advocates and the plaintiff's lawyer hailed what remained as "new ground" in pursuing decades-old claims.

A St. Louis judge's ruling lowers the bar to recover damages from the church, said Ken Chackes, the lawyer. "It's new ground," he said Tuesday. "Very significant."

The suit at issue was filed in St. Louis Circuit Court under the name John Doe in August 2005, and claims former priest Donald Straub sexually abused Doe in 1975-78, when Straub was an associate pastor at St. George Parish in St. Louis County and Doe was a boy.

In court filings, church lawyers asked Judge Donald L. McCullin to dismiss nine counts of the lawsuit. On Monday, he dropped seven, leaving Doe's claims that the Archdiocese of St. Louis could be held liable as an accessory to child sexual abuse for aiding and abetting that abuse, and that church officials failed to properly supervise children in their care.

McCullin ruled that " the Archdiocese may be held liable for its own misdeeds, including, if proven at trial, accessory liability."

Chackes said he was aware of only one other Missouri case that proceeded on a sexual abuse charge against the church; it was later dismissed on other grounds.

On the child supervision issue, Chackes said it means his client has to prove only that church officials failed to exercise reasonable care. Past rulings have held plaintiffs to a higher standard — that church officials had to know that harm was certain or substantially certain to result.

"It basically puts the children of (parochial schools) on the same footing as children in private schools," Chackes said.

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Anne Steffens declined to comment Tuesday and said church lawyers would not comment on the pending litigation.

McCullin's ruling does not bind other judges.

Straub was laicized in 2005.


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