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Portion of Chaminade sex-abuse case can proceed 

Jessica Shumaker//April 9, 2021

Portion of Chaminade sex-abuse case can proceed 

Jessica Shumaker//April 9, 2021

The Missouri Supreme Court has revived a man’s claim that Chaminade College Preparatory School in suburban St. Louis and the Marianist Province of the United States intentionally failed to supervise a member of the clergy accused of child-sex abuse. 

In a unanimous ruling April 6, the court partially reversed a lower-court order granting the defendants summary judgment on the claim, determining that testimony from a plaintiff’s expert on the use of coded language in personnel files of Catholic institutions to obscure child sexual abuse is admissible. 

The court also affirmed part of the lower-court ruling barring the plaintiff’s negligence claims against the defendants. 

In a move cheered by religious groups, the court declined to overturn Gibson v. Brewer, a 1997 Missouri Supreme Court ruling holding that the state’s courts may not peer into the hiring and firing practices of religious organizations. 

Tim Belz of the Clayton Plaza Law Group in Clayton represented the Thomas More Society and the Christian Legal Society, which filed an amicus brief opposing the overturn of Gibson. He said he and his clients are “thrilled” with the court’s decision.    

“It’s a good day for church autonomy,” he said. “We’ve always believed that if the supervisor does something that is intentionally bad, then you can hold him responsible. The whole idea of Gibson v. Brewer is that the state can’t substitute its judgment for the bishops or the religious supervisor as to what the standard of care would be in a negligence case.” 

The plaintiff in the case is a 1971 Chaminade graduate, identified in court records only as John Doe 122. Doe alleged in a suit filed in 2015 in St. Louis County Circuit Court that he was sexually abused by a counselor while attending the school in Creve Coeur, a St. Louis suburb. 

Doe alleged he didn’t recall the abuse until he received a letter in 2012 from the Marianist Province of the United States informing him of an allegation of sexual abuse against John Woulfe, a now-deceased Marianist brother employed by Chaminade as a guidance counselor.

Doe’s claims included negligent failure to supervise children, negligent supervision and intentional failure to supervise clergy. 

Chaminade moved for summary judgment, arguing that Gibson barred Doe’s negligence claims, and that Doe’s claim of intentional failure to supervise failed because he admitted he did not have direct proof of the school’s knowledge of Woulfe’s prior abuse. 

Judge Kristine Allen Kerr granted the motion, agreeing that Gibson barred Doe’s negligence claims and that Doe’s intentional failure to supervise claim was not supported by sufficient evidence. 

Doe appealed the ruling to the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, which transferred the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. 

On appeal, Doe asked the court to overrule Gibson, contending it was wrongly decided. He pointed to several cases in other states following Gibson that rejected its conclusions. 

Judge Paul C. Wilson said in the opinion that the Missouri Supreme Court is bound by its prior decisions and those of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court has shown no discernable change in its approach to similar cases following Gibson. 

“To overrule Gibson now, simply because it might have been decided differently — or because decisions from other state courts have decided similar cases differently — reduces the principles of stare decisis to a doctrine of mere convenience,” he said. 

But on Doe’s intentional failure to supervise claim, the court held that the testimony of Doe’s expert witness — a Catholic priest with extensive knowledge of the problem of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church — is admissible and sufficient for a jury to find for Doe on the disputed elements of his claim. 

St. Louis attorney Ken Chackes, who represents Doe, said he and his client are “very pleased” that the court reversed summary judgment in part. 

“I was very glad to see that kind of evidence is enough to prove that a religious defendant knew that a member of the clergy was dangerous and had likely been involved in sexually abusing students, even if it’s not directly stated in their records,” he said. 

Chackes said he is disappointed in the court’s decision not to overturn Gibson, but he understands the court’s rationale. Once the case returns to the trial court, Kerr will be tasked with determining whether Doe’s claims are time-barred, he said. 

Alexandra Haar of HeplerBroom in St. Louis represented the religious order and the school. She declined to comment on the ruling.  

The case is Doe v. Marianist Province of the U.S., SC98307.  


Supreme Court weighs religious immunity in sexual abuse suit 

Supreme Court to hear Chaminade sex abuse case 

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