Parents Can't Sue for Emotional Distress in Priest Sex Abuse Case

By Scott Dean
Pennsylvania Law Journal
May 31, 1993

The parents of a Scranton boy who was llegedly sexually abused and infected with AIDS by their church's priest can't sue the priest for inflicting emotion distress on them because they weren't present when the abuse occurred, a sharply divided Superior Court has ruled.

Affirming the ruling of a Pike County trial court, the 2-1 appellate court ruled May 13 that state tort law requires individuals seeking emotional distress damages to have witnessed the abuse of the third party.

"Presence is a crucial element of the tort because an individual who witnesses outrageous or shocking conduct directed at a third party has no time in which to prepare himself/herself for the immediate emotional impact of such conduct," Senior Judge John Brosky wrote with Judge Zoran Popovich.

"(The) emotional effects are generally lessened where the individual learns of the outrageous conduct long after its occurrence and by means other than through his or her own personal observations. Presence is therefore an essential element which must be established to successfully set forth a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress," Brosky wrote.

Judge Stephen McEwen Jr. dissented, finding that the conduct of Father Robert Caparelli of the St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church in Scranton was so "outrageous and despicable" that the parents' presence during the abuse was unnecessary.

McEwen pointed out that the parents had been persuaded by Caparelli to let their son spend time with him and, thus, were present during his seduction of the boy.

"I am of the mind that the parents were more than present since defendant had made the parents not simply witness, but had impelled them into the role of accomplice," McEwen wrote.

McEwen also suggested that the boy, M.J., contracted the AIDS virus after Caparelli abused him. This information is not mentioned in the majority opinion.

"The vile depravity which the complaint asserts defendant Caparelli practiced on young (M.J.) has, to be sure, subjected young (M.J.) to a lifetime of tortured existence and -- it is alleged in the amended complaint soon to be filed in the trial court -- has hurled young (M.J.) into the devil's abyss of AIDS," wrote McEwen in the strongly worded dissent.


M.J. and his parents were parishioners of Caparelli's church. According to court records, the family developed a close relationship with Caparelli, and M.J. served as an alter boy. The boy also went on trips with the priest.

Caparelli allegedly engaged in various sex acts with M.J. between September 1985 and June 1986.

The boy's parents did not discover the abuse until 1991, at which time they sued Caparelli and the church.

Caparelli responded by filing preliminary objections to the family's complaint, challenging the parents' claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.


In July of 1992, the trial court sustained Caparelli's objections and dismissed the parents' emotional distress claims.

On appeal, the boy's parents sought to hold Caparelli liable for the intentional infliction of emotional distress as defined by Section 46 of the Restatement of Torts -- a tort that has been acknowledged by state appellate courts, but not specifically adopted by the state Supreme Court.

The panel's majority declined to "contribute to the confusion and conflict" regarding whether to adopt Section 46 of the Restatement of Torts, because the parents failed to establish a crucial element of the tort -- being present during the alleged abuse.

"Although appellants have adequately demonstrated the elements of physical harm and outrageous conduct, their cause of action nevertheless fails because . . . their presence at the time the acts were committed, has not been met," Brosky wrote.

"Because appellants were not present when the alleged sexual conduct occurred, they have failed to set forth a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress," Brosky added. "Under these circumstances, the trial court properly dismissed the courts relating to this tort."


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