|Court: Priest Sex Abuse Suit Barred by Statute of Limitations
By Steven M. Ellis
January 30, 2008
Suits against a religious order of the Catholic church by two men who claim that they were sexually molested by a priest while minors is barred by the statute of limitations because the men cannot show that the order had prior knowledge of similar conduct by the priest, this district's Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Rejecting the men's argument that the Salesian Society's lack of records regarding allegations of abuse against the priest and other clergy members raised an inference that the society received such allegations but failed to document them, Div. Eight affirmed a trial court ruling that the men's claims were barred under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340.1 because they could not establish that the society knew or had reason to know that the priest molested other children prior to the alleged incidents.
The men, identified as Gil Doe and Richard Doe, alleged that Richard Presenti, one of the society's priests, abused them in 1962 and 1972, respectively, while they were attending the society's Boy's Camp in Middletown, just north of Santa Rosa. Their suits, brought in different counties, were made part of a coordination proceeding and assigned to Alameda Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw.
They brought the action pursuant to the Legislature's 2002 amendment to Sec. 340.1 reviving previously time-barred childhood sexual abuse claims.
The statute provides that the limitations period for actions to recover damages runs on the later of either the plaintiff's 26th birthday, or three years after the plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, that the abuse caused a psychological injury occurring after the plaintiff turned 18. It also allows suits against persons or entities that employed or supervised the perpetrator.
However, once a plaintiff turns 26, the statute bars claims against persons or entities for breach of a legal duty of care to the plaintiff unless such employers or supervisors had notice of the abuse and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it in the future.
The society moved for summary judgment, contending that the complaint did not qualify under the limitations period because there was no evidence that the society had the requisite notice that Presenti had sexually abused anyone before he allegedly abused the plaintiffs. It noted that Gil Doe did not report the incident for 30 years; that its records of a contemporaneous investigation by its regional head, or provincial, into Richard Doe's 1972 allegation did not reflect whether a conclusion was ever drawn with regard to the allegation's veracity; and that the provincial who investigated Richard Doe's claim could not recall any other allegations of abuse against Presenti.
The plaintiffs did not dispute the evidence, but countered that in the early 1970's Presenti had partially admitted to abusing Gil Doe and two other boys. They also alleged that Presenti subsequently lied about the degree of this abuse and other complaints to society officials; that the society continued to employee Presenti after Richard Doe made his allegations; that the society's records did not include reports of misconduct by Presenti prior to 1992, despite Richard Doe's allegations; and that the society's records on another clergy member—who was convicted of childhood sexual abuse—similarly omitted any information regarding alleged abuse.
The men argued that Presenti's lies supported an inference that there were multiple victims, and that this evidence, when combined with the society's failure to document reports of abuse, raised triable issues of fact that other incidents had been reported to the society and that their absence from the society's files could not be believed as evidence that the society lacked knowledge of Presenti's conduct.
In support, the plaintiffs cited Donchin v. Guerrero (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 1832, where a landowner's false denial the he knew dogs were present on his property—when combined with evidence concerning the dogs' previous displays of threatening conduct—was held to be akin to evidence that he had a consciousness of guilty knowledge that the dogs were dangerous.
However, Sabraw rejected this theory and, on appeal, Justice Laurence D. Rubin agreed.
"The defendant in this case is the Society, not Presenti, and evidence that Presenti lied about what he had done is therefore not relevant," he said. "In fact, evidence that he lied to the Society cuts the other way and strengthens the Society's argument that it knew nothing about what Presenti had done."
Writing that the plaintiffs' contention suffered from "two key evidentiary gaps," Rubin noted first that there was no evidence of any incidents predating the alleged molestation in 1962, and that Gil Doe admitted that he did not report what had happened at the time. Rubin also noted that even though Presenti admitted to molesting Richard Doe and two other boys sometime during 1970 to 1973, it was possible given the speculative time period involved that the other victims were abused after Richard Doe.
"Filling in these gaps requires us to speculate about the basis for the Society's knowledge asserted by appellants," he wrote. "Such speculation is impermissible, however, and is grounds for granting summary judgment."
Rubin did clarify, however, that the court's holding was based solely on the limited facts of the case, and wrote that an inference of notice—as the one plaintiffs contended—could be drawn in other cases where courts were presented with what would otherwise appear to be minimal facts.
Presiding Justice Candace Cooper and Justice Madeleine Flier joined Rubin in his opinion.
Plaintiffs' counsel Richard J. Simons could not be reached for comment.
Stephen A. McFeely, who represented the society, said that his client was "very, very saddened by what these two men have suffered and what other individuals have suffered."
He said that the society has put into place practices and procedures to preclude similar events from occurring again.
The case is Doe v. Salesian Society 08 S.O.S. 653.
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