John Doe AP V. Archdiocese of St. Louis

By Marci Hamilton
Supreme Court of the United States
January 3, 2012

[with pdf]

This is a paradigmatic case about child sex abuse in a religious organization. With full awareness that one of its priests had previously molested a child, the St. Louis Archdiocese placed Fr. Thomas Cooper in a new position with access to children and took no action to ensure the protection of the children that would inevitably fall into his sphere of influence. Petitioner John Doe AP, a child in a devout Catholic family, who knew Cooper only through the parish, became ensnared in Cooper's web, and was subjected to intense grooming, seduction, oral rape, and attempted anal rape.

The Archdiocese was aware of past instances of child sexual abuse involving Cooper, and knew that leaving him alone with children was likely to result in harm; yet disregarded that known risk when it placed Cooper in a role of unsupervised proximity to Petitioner and other children, resulting in subsequent instances of child sex abuse. App. 22. The Archdiocese's defense was twofold: (1) reliance on Gibson v. Brewer, 952 S.W. 2d 239 (Mo. 1997), for the proposition that the First Amendment shields them from liability for negligence and negligent supervision and retention of clergy abusing children, and (2) a reading of Gibson that the sex acts must occur on their premises, not just the relationship, grooming, and seduction that leads to the sex acts.

One misguided First Amendment decision stood in the way of justice in this case: Gibson v. Brewer, which held that the First Amendment bars holding religious organizations accountable for their role in creating and maintaining the conditions for children to be sexually abused.

John Doe AP and his family were parishioners at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic parish in St. Louis, Missouri. App. 32. While John Doe AP attended the church, Fr. Thomas Cooper, as part of his employment, worked with, mentored, and counseled him, all the while seducing and grooming him to the point where he could sexually abuse him. The grooming started with special attention and gifts, then graduated to trips to Cooper's special "clubhouse," where Cooper took boys from the parish to initiate sexualized games, initially showing Petitioner pornography and then walking around naked in front of him and other boys. Finally, on one of Petitioner's trips with Cooper alone, the grooming and seduction escalated into oral rape and attempted anal rape.


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