Chaminade Clergy Abuse Case Challenges First Amendment Protection for Church Officials Accused of Negligence
By Nassim Benchaabane
St. Louis Post Dispatch
May 6, 2020
JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in a sex abuse case that asks the court to break with a previous ruling protecting church officials from negligent supervision claims because courts deciding such claims could violate separation of church and state.
The lawsuit before the state’s top court claims now-deceased Marianist Brother John Woulfe sexually abused a Chaminade College Preparatory School student in 1971 while working as a guidance counselor at the school. The suit, first filed in 2015 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, alleges Marianist and Chaminade officials knew of the abuse and failed to stop it and that Woulfe previously had sexually assaulted at least one other boy at Chaminade.
Information in Woulfe’s file, the suit says, contained coded language indicating the Marianist Province knew Woulfe had abused minors before transferring him to Chaminade and also while he worked there, and that other students in the early 1970s reported Woulfe had sexually abused them.
Ken Chackes, attorney for the plaintiff, John Doe 122, argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday that the First Amendment provision identified in a 1997 Missouri Supreme Court case is not clearly defined and should be limited to internal matters within the church, such as ecclesiastical appointments.
In the 1997 Supreme Court case against the Rev. Michael Brewer of the diocese of Kansas City, who was accused by Michael Gibson of fondling him during a sleepover, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, ruling that “questions of hiring, ordaining, and retaining clergy … necessarily involve interpretation of religious doctrine, policy, and administration. Such excessive entanglement between church and state has the effect of inhibiting religion, in violation of the First Amendment.”
But allegations of abuse, Chackes argued Wednesday, involve secular harm to a third party that could be resolved through the judicial system without violating separation of church and state.
“They can hire clergy, they can retain clergy, even if they’re sexual abusers,” Chackes said. “The focus has to be on children. How can they protect children … .”
Chackes also argued that testimony from the Rev. Doyle and other church records on Woulfe’s background included language that, without using the phrase “sexual abuse,” would reasonably lead the jury to conclude Woulfe had a pattern of abuse both before abusing this particular plaintiff and afterward.
Alexandra S. Haar, attorney for the defendants, said that the doctrine of church autonomy applied because the concept of holding a church official to be negligent is not neutral because it “involves a state replacing (a church’s) own interpretation of ecclesiastic issues.”
The allegations that Woulfe abused other Chaminade students, Harr said, were not reported to the church until after Doe was allegedly abused in 1971. The language church officials used in Woulfe’s file could reference other problems Woulfe had, including failure to attend daily Mass, she said.
“There is no indication besides pure speculation that these phrases were nefarious,” she said.
The case before the Supreme Court is one of at least four lawsuits claiming Woulfe abused boys while working as a guidance counselor from 1968 to 1971. After leaving Chaminade, Woulfe worked at a public school in Iroquois County, Illinois, where he was accused in 2002 of improperly touching a student. He was convicted in 2004 of an amended charge of battery and died in 2005. In each of the lawsuits, plaintiffs said a 2012 letter from the Rev. Martin Solma, a Marianist leader, that named Woulfe triggered memories for the alleged victims.