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Supreme Court to hear Chaminade sex abuse case

Jessica Shumaker//January 8, 2020

Supreme Court to hear Chaminade sex abuse case

Jessica Shumaker//January 8, 2020

For the first time in more than 20 years, the Missouri Supreme Court is poised to hear a case that potentially could open the door for plaintiffs to bring negligence claims against religious entities.

On Dec. 31, the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District agreed to transfer the case of John Doe 122, a 1971 graduate of Chaminade College Preparatory School in Creve Coeur, near St. Louis, who sued the school alleging he was sexually abused by a school counselor.

Two of three judges on the panel that heard the case said in their opinion that they would uphold summary judgment in full for the school, but because of the general interest and importance of the issues on appeal, they opted to transfer the case to the high court.

Doe’s suit alleged he was sexually abused by John Woulfe, a Marianist brother employed by Chaminade as a guidance counselor, according to the majority opinion written by Judge Mary K. Hoff. Woulfe has since died.

In the opinion, Hoff said Doe felt shame and guilt and did not tell anyone about the abuse. When he graduated from the school, he decided to put it behind him, and he alleges he had no further memory of the abuse by 1973.

In 2012, Doe received a letter from the Rev. Martin Solma, provincial of the Marianist Province of the United States, which stated the Marianists had received an allegation of sexual abuse against Woulfe.

Doe alleged the letter brought back memories of the abuse. In November 2015, he filed a petition in St. Louis County Circuit Court against the Marianist Province of the United States and the school, alleging sexual abuse or battery, negligent supervision, intentional failure to supervise clergy, negligent failure to supervise children, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty.

After discovery, the defendants sought summary judgment on three grounds.

They argued that summary judgment must be granted because Doe’s claims were time-barred, and that Doe’s negligence claims were barred by the Missouri Supreme Court’s 1997 ruling in Gibson v. Brewer.

That ruling held that a determination of whether a religious entity acts “reasonably” constitutes an excessive entanglement in religious doctrine, policy and administration under the First Amendment.

The defendants also argued that Doe’s claim of intentional failure to supervise clergy failed because Doe, in a deposition, admitted to having no information that the defendants knew Woulfe was allegedly abusing children prior to abusing Doe. They also claimed Doe presented no other evidence to establish such knowledge.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge Kristine Kerr granted the motion for summary judgment, prompting Doe’s appeal.

He argued that Kerr erred in granting summary judgment for the defendants on his claims of negligent supervision and negligent failure to supervise children because she relied on Gibson. He contended that the ruling misapplies the First Amendment and runs afoul of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The Eastern District majority disagreed, saying his argument has “been considered and consistently rejected by the Missouri Court of Appeals.” Doe also failed to cite binding precedent that would allow the panel to ignore the holding in Gibson, Hoff wrote.

“Accordingly, because Appellant’s negligent supervision and negligent failure to supervise children claims would require interpretation of religion doctrine, policy, and administration amounting to an excessive entanglement between church and state, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Respondents,” Hoff wrote, with Judge Sherri B. Sullivan concurring.

Doe also argued Kerr erred in granting summary judgment for the defendants on his claim of intentional failure to supervise clergy. He asserted that a genuine dispute exists as to their prior knowledge of the abuse in light of Woulfe’s personnel file and the expert opinion of a canon lawyer, the Rev. Thomas Doyle.

The majority disagreed, ruling that Doyle’s testimony — which asserted that euphemistic language in Woulfe’s personnel records showed evidence of abuse — was speculative and inadmissible.

In a separate opinion, Judge Angela T. Quigless said she would affirm the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants regarding Doe’s negligence claims.

She said she would reverse summary judgment on the intentional failure to supervise clergy claim, however, because there is a genuine issue of material fact in regards to the defendants’ knowledge.

Ken Chackes of St. Louis represented Doe. He said he and his client are “very pleased” with the decision to transfer the case.

Missouri is one of only a few states that does not allow for negligence claims to be brought against a religious entity for child sexual abuse, he said. In the majority of states, the same standards would apply to any employer — religious or not — he said.

He said his client disagrees that the court finding for his client would run afoul of the First Amendment.

“We’re not challenging any religious beliefs. We’re not challenging any religious practices. We’re just seeking to hold an employer responsible for keeping children safe from sexual predators,” he said. “We don’t believe that infringes on any religious beliefs.”

Gerard T. Noce of HeplerBroom in St. Louis represented the defendants. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The case is John Doe 122 v. Marianist Province of the U.S. et al., ED107767.

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