March 19 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court refused to reinstate a lawsuit claiming the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis was negligent by employing a pedophile as a priest, a job that put him in contact with children.
The justices today rejected an appeal challenging a Missouri court’s ruling that the Constitution’s religious-freedom protections shield churches from lawsuits questioning practices for employing and supervising the clergy.
The Catholic Church has faced hundreds of lawsuits, and paid millions of dollars in damages and settlements, in claims from people who alleged sexual abuse by priests over a period of decades. At least eight Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy since 2004 in connection with damage claims, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 expressed “deep sorrow” for child abuse within the church.
While most state and federal courts to consider the issue have permitted suits against the church in connection with misconduct by its clergy, state courts in Missouri, Utah and Wisconsin have said the First Amendment bars claims related to the employment or supervision of priests, according to the appeal at the high court.
The man in the St. Louis case, identified as John Doe AP, asked the justices to overturn the Missouri Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in a different case that said courts can’t resolve employment-related negligence lawsuits involving priests without making judgments on church doctrine and ordination policies, which would violate the Constitution’s limits on government intrusions into religion.
Claims Against Employer
The St. Louis archdiocese opposed the appeal, saying the lower courts also decided that, under state law, the suit didn’t satisfy general requirements for negligence claims against an employer. Missouri’s courts have final say on interpretation of state laws unless there are conflicts with someone’s rights under the U.S. Constitution or federal law, the church said.
The plaintiff, described as 54 years old in a court filing earlier this year, alleged that in 1970 and 1971, a priest at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church in St. Louis twice took him to a clubhouse off the church’s property and sexually abused him.
The 2005 lawsuit claimed that church officials knew about alleged abuse by the priest and were negligent in assigning him to duties that provided unsupervised contact with children. The priest had died before the case was filed. The suit said the statute of limitations didn’t apply because the man had repressed memories of the abuse for three decades.
A Missouri trial judge ruled the church couldn’t be sued on the man’s claims and an appeals court upheld the decision. The Missouri Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Doe’s appeal said the lower court rulings were based on a 15-year-old Missouri high court decision that’s similar to rulings in some other states and wrongly protects churches from responsibility for properly supervising employees.
The archdiocese said the courts also ruled that for several reasons, including the fact the alleged abuse happened away from church property, Doe’s claims can’t meet the requirements under Missouri law for a negligence suit against any employer.
The case is John Doe AP v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, 11-840.
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