Rulings Hold Employers Liable for Sex Abuse

By Ashbel S. Green
April 9, 1999

Summary: The decisions hold that the Boy Scouts and Catholic archdiocese can't say they didn't know of the misconduct The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday revived two lawsuits by men who said they were molested as children, one by a Franciscan priest and the other by a Boy Scout leader.

Lawyers said the unanimous rulings would make it easier for victims of sexual abuse to sue. In the past, a plaintiff had to show that officials from institutions involved in the care of children knew or should have known that their employee was molesting a child.

Thursday's rulings effectively eliminate that requirement.

"The significance of this is that institutions are no longer going to be able to say we didn't know, because the courts are going to say it's your business to know," said Kelly Clark, who represented the plaintiffs in both cases.

The rulings had nothing to do with the facts of either case, each of which was dismissed before going to trial. One defendant, the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, said in a written statement Thursday that it expects to prevail if its case goes to trial.

The other defendant, the Boy Scouts of America Cascade Pacific Council, did not return calls seeking comment.

The Supreme Court made two other significant decisions: * It agreed to review Parrott vs. Carr Chevrolet, which probably will shed light on how the courts will handle large punitive damage awards such as last week's $80.3 million verdict against Philip Morris, the cigarette-maker.

* It let stand a Court of Appeals ruling that a stalking order prohibiting an abortion protester from picketing the home of an abortion provider violated the protester's free speech rights. The case was Hanzo vs. deParrie.

The molestation cases involve the doctrine of respondeat superior, which holds that an employer is liable for an employee's conduct if the employee is acting within the scope of employment.

In Steven Fearing vs. Melvin Bucher, a 1994 case filed in Multnomah County, the plaintiff claimed that 25 years ago at St. Anthony's Church in Tigard a Roman Catholic priest used his position of trust to sexually molest him.

A judge dismissed the case, saying the molestation did not fall within the priest's scope of employment.

But David Slader, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, said the Supreme Court ruling changes the analysis. Courts now must look at whether the priest developed a bond of trust within the scope of employment and then used that bond to get an opportunity to molest.

Lawyers for the defendants in both cases either would not comment on the implications of the rulings, had not read them or did not return telephone calls.

Bucher, who is in California, could not be reached for comment.

Clark, who is now free to restart his lawsuits, said he did not think the rulings would cause huge problems for affected institutions.

"My take on it is there's a lot of screening and monitoring and just common sense that can and should be done out there that hasn't been done," he said.

Daniel Lourim vs. John Swensen involved similar allegations against a Boy Scout leader. It was filed in 1995 in Washington County.


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