Church Held Not Liable for Molestation by Clergy Members Absent Notice

Metropolitan News Enterprise [Los Angeles, California]
March 1, 1996

Church officials aren't liable for the sexual misconduct of a clergy member absent prior notice of the person's dangerous propensities, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.

The Catholic bishop of San Diego had no duty to investigate Rev. Emmanuel Omemaga before hiring him as a parish priest, the court said Wednesday in an opinion by Justice Richard Huffman of Div. One. The appellate court granted a writ directing summary judgment be granted in favor of the bishop and the Church of the Most Precious Blood.

Omemaga was associate pastor at the church when he allegedly repeatedly raped and otherwise molested the then-13-year old Jane Doe.

San Diego Superior Court Richard Haden had denied the motion for summary judgment, saying triable issues of fact existed relating to the church's duty to avoid negligent hiring.

Huffman said the church did not have a duty to ask Omemaga if he had "problems with his celibacy" when hiring him, explaining the church could be liable for sexual harassment and invasion of privacy if they had investigated Omemaga in this manner. Omemaga has admitted to molesting Jane Doe and to conducting prior affairs with adult parishioners.

Huffman said the church had no duty to properly supervise Jane Doe and the church did not put Jane Doe in Omemaga's custody or control, as might have been the case if she had attended a church school.

Rather, he pointed out, the time she spent with the priest was primarily in public places or hotels, after he picked her up from her family's home, according to reports made by the church to the police.

Huffman did not reach the church's argument that the separation of church and state barred any civil action for negligent hiring and supervision of a priest. But he agreed that there was no duty on the part of church officials to investigate whether Omemagawho was hired by the church after being trained and ordained in the Philippineswas committed to celibacy.

"Under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the state may not compel affirmation of a religious belief nor impose requirements based on belief in any religion," Huffman said, explaining "the church had no greater civil duty based upon its religious tenets."

He also opined that no special relationship exists between a priest and a parishioner and that, unlike the case with other counselors, the church cannot be liable for negligent counseling as priests are exempt from state-imposed counseling standards and licensing procedures.

The plaintiff's attorney, Debra Wolfe of San Diego, told the METNEWS that the police searched Omemaga's belongings and discovered 30 graphic photographs of Jane Doe being tied up unclothed. Omemaga was in the Philippines when police were told about the incidents and a parish priest, Father Callaghan, said he would inform the police if Omemaga returned.

When the police returned, she said, Omemaga's possessions had been cleared out and Omemaga was again out of the country. The failure of the church to notify police about Omemaga's whereabouts provided the opportunity for him to flee to the Philippines, she added.

Wolfe added:

"This case means the church is providing a license to molest. It will chill others coming forward for counseling after molestation by priests."

Defense attorneys were unavailable for comment, but the Church of the Most Precious Blood's pastor, who identified himself as Father Franklin, commented:

"It's an incident that shouldn't have happened, but priests are human beings...To suggest this was a pedophile case is to mix apples and oranges. I'm tired of all this. It happened over two years ago. Why are you dredging it up now? There have been no lasting effects on our people."

The case is Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego v. Superior Court, Jane Doe RPI 96 S.O.S. 1339.


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