3rd Circuit Rejects RICO Claim against Archdiocese

By Shannon P. Duffy
November 7, 2007

Fourteen alleged victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests have lost their bid to revive a civil anti-racketeering suit against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for its alleged cover-up of the scandal.

In its 14-page opinion in Magnum v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's dismissal of the suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs cannot show they suffered a RICO-style injury that was caused by the cover-up.

The ruling affirms a November 2006 decision by U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis who found that the RICO claims suffered from numerous fatal flaws.

Davis ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because their alleged damages stemmed from personal injury claims, which are not cognizable under RICO. He also found the plaintiffs could not plead proximate cause and could not plead a RICO "enterprise" or "pattern of racketeering activity."

Now the 3rd Circuit has rejected the plaintiffs' appeal, finding that the entire theory of the suit was flawed because it was premised solely on the plaintiffs' alleged loss of the opportunity to bring personal injury claims within the statute of limitations.

"The lost opportunity to bring a state law personal injury claim is not 'business or property' within the meaning of Section 1964(c), and cannot support a civil RICO claim," 3rd Circuit Judge Thomas M. Hardiman wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Dolores K. Sloviter and Michael A. Chagares.

Under RICO, Hardiman said, physical or emotional harm to a person is not "property."

Plaintiffs attorney Stewart J. Eisenberg of Eisenberg Rothweiler Winkler Eisenberg & Jeck argued in the appeal that the archdiocese engaged in a large-scale cover-up of alleged child abuse perpetrated by priests.

The abuse alleged in the suit spanned three decades -- from 1955 to 1985 -- and ranged from inappropriate fondling to instances of forcible oral, anal or vaginal rape.

Eisenberg argued that the archdiocese should be held responsible under RICO because the alleged cover-up deprived the plaintiffs of the rights they would have had in personal injury suits against the church.

Hardiman disagreed, finding that the loss of the opportunity to bring such a suit cannot be deemed a loss of "property."

"Although a cause of action indeed may be a form of property, injuries to that property will only be redressable under civil RICO if the plaintiff can allege that the wrong to be vindicated is itself an injury to 'business or property' within the meaning of RICO," Hardiman wrote.

The ruling is a victory for attorneys Jeffrey A. Lutsky, Michael D. O'Mara and Christine M. Debevec of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young.

Eisenberg, in an interview, said he was "obviously disappointed" by the ruling, but has not yet decided whether to pursue the case further, either through a petition for re-argument before the full 3rd Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many of the allegations in the suit were drawn from the 400-page report of a Philadelphia investigative grand jury that had probed the allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

The plaintiffs sought to proceed as a class action, claiming there are up to 500 members of the plaintiff class and at least 63 priests who are known to have engaged in the sexual molestation of children.

According to the suit, the alleged cover-up continued until at least 2002, and amounted to a campaign to protect the accused priests despite endangering more children.

When confronted with complaints and evidence of abuse, the suit alleged, church officials simply ignored the allegations and allowed or even in some instances encouraged the suspected priests to continue working in the parishes.

In other cases, the suit alleged, church officials coerced or improperly influenced complaining families to keep quiet, transferred priests with known and unresolved allegations of abuse to different parishes so as to "hide" them, or feigned internal investigations in order to prevent complainants from going to the authorities.


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