HG Doe v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of L. A.

Decision Date20 October 2021
Docket NumberB305810
Citation285 Cal.Rptr.3d 613,70 Cal.App.5th 657
Parties John HG DOE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. The ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP OF LOS ANGELES, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Law Offices of Anthony DeMarco, Anthony M. DeMarco and Alexandria L. Heins, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

McKool Smith Hennigan, J. Michael Hennigan, Lee W. Potts, and Elizabeth S. Lachman, Los Angeles, for Defendant and Respondent.



Does a church have a duty to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy while the children are attending religious school or participating in other church-sponsored programs? Because the answer to that question is "yes," we reverse the judgment entered after the trial court, which answered that question "no," granted a motion for summary judgment by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, a Corporation Sole (the Archdiocese).1

A. A Priest Allegedly Sexually Abuses Doe at a Church

In the late 1980's John HG Doe attended catechism classes at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church.2 Doe's father dropped him off for the classes, which were held in a room near the sanctuary. Father John Higson was an associate pastor at Our Lady of the Rosary, but he was not Doe's teacher.

In August 1988, when he was 10 years old, Doe raised his hand during class to be excused to use the restroom. Doe later said that, while he was in a restroom stall, Higson entered the stall and sexually molested Doe by groping Doe's genitals and forcing Doe to perform oral sex on him. Doe claimed Higson said "every boy does this in order to do their First Communion." Doe returned to class, upset and on the verge of crying, and put his head down on his folded arms. He did not tell his teacher what happened, and the teacher did not ask why Doe was upset or why he had his head down.

Doe claimed a similar incident occurred around the same time. Doe also did not tell his teacher or anyone else at Our Lady of the Rosary about that incident. In 2014 Doe told his father that Higson sexually assaulted him.

B. The Archdiocese Becomes Aware of and Responds to the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests

The Archdiocese began receiving reports in 1967 of priests sexually abusing minors. By 1984 the Archdiocese had received 25 reports concerning priests in the Archdiocese alone. More generally, by the mid-1980's the Archdiocese was aware that clergy sexual abuse of minors was a widespread concern across the country. In 1985 an "eye-opening and disturbing" panel discussion at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops "was a defining moment for the Church, amounting for all practical purposes to the first widespread recognition that child and adolescent sexual abuse by the clergy was more than a matter of tragic but isolated incidents."

A report, also in 1985, titled The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner , "had a great impact," according to the Archdiocese. That report "informed the Bishops that child sexual abuse by clergy was much more prevalent than the Church previously understood." The report estimated the Roman Catholic Church's civil liability for clergy sexual abuse of minors would be least $1 billion over the next 10 years, which it called "a conservative cost projection" at "the rate cases [were] developing." The report proposed the Roman Catholic Church form a "Crisis Control Team" and a "Policy and Planning Group" comprised of "professionals and consultants who possess a significant degree of experience and expertise" to address legal, canonical, and clinical considerations presented by the sexual molestation of children.

Between 1984 and 1988 the Archdiocese received an additional 36 reports of sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese. At least one of those reports involved another priest assigned to Our Lady of the Rosary who, in March 1988, reportedly " ‘grab[bed] little boys and hug[ged] them.’ " And in 1987 a priest in the Archdiocese (but in a different parish) pleaded guilty to sexually molesting minors. In 1987 or 1988 the Archdiocese purchased sexual abuse insurance.

At this time the Archdiocese began developing policies and procedures for preventing clergy sexual abuse. In 1986 then-Archbishop Roger Mahony asked priests attending a retreat to meet with him confidentially if any of them "had engaged in any misconduct with minors." And in 1989 the Archdiocese published its Policy on Misconduct Involving a Priest . The policy instructed priests to "avoid the kind of contact with minors that could cause comment on the part of reasonable people," such as "hugging, tickling, [and] wrestling." The policy also prohibited priests from having minors in their rooms or staying overnight at a rectory and advised priests on field trips or vacations with minors to always have at least one other adult present. The policy identified "clear violations" of these guidelines as "danger signs" that fellow priests should "be aware of ... in our brother priests’ activities." The policy also identified "the danger to priests who, without doing anything wrong, seek the company of children and look to them for the emotional support that only normal adult relationships provide."

In 1994 the Archdiocese issued its Policy on Sexual Abuse by Priests , which expanded the Archdiocese's efforts to prevent sexual abuse of minors. The 1994 policy stated the Archdiocese would "educate priests and people about the problem of sexual abuse and set in place screening procedures and educational policies on this subject for those training for the priesthood." The 1994 policy also established procedures for investigating and responding to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, precautions priests should take in their relationships with minors (which mirrored the 1989 guidelines), and screening procedures for priests assigned to the diocese. The policy also created an advisory board to implement the policy and recommended procedures.

In 2002 the Archdiocese created the Safeguard the Children program "to raise the consciousness of the community as a whole to issues of child abuse and neglect, and to sensitize teachers, parents, children, volunteers and all those in ministry to conduct that may be evidence of possible abusive behavior by any adult." The program asked each parish to create a Safeguard the Children committee comprised of parishioners with "relevant expertise," such as nurses, police officers, and parents. The "goals" of each committee were "to inform all parish groups of policies on reporting and preventing child abuse and neglect, to conduct workshops attuned to local needs, to arrange speakers, and, in general, to encourage parish groups to learn about all aspects of child abuse and prevention."

Also in 2002 the Archdiocese distributed to all 288 parishes and parish schools a pamphlet titled Respecting the Boundaries: Keeping Ministerial Relationships Healthy and Holy . The pamphlet was designed "to help parishioners understand sexual misconduct in the Church and teach them how to identify possible problems and bring concerns about suspected abuse to the attention of Church officials." In 2002 the Archdiocese also began comprehensive training programs for clergy regarding mandatory reporting of suspicions of sexual abuse.

In 2004 the Archdiocese issued Report to the People of God: Clergy Sexual Abuse, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, 1930-2003 , a comprehensive report that represented the Archdiocese's "best understanding of the history of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese and [its] efforts to eliminate this scourge." The report acknowledged that steps the Archdiocese took "in the middle 1980's" to address the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy were "insufficient" and that its "learning process was still evolving" into the late 1990's. The report detailed the various policies and procedures the Archdiocese had established regarding reporting, treating offenders, and preventing abuse and catalogued the reports of clergy sexual abuse in the diocese. Regarding prevention measures, the report stated the Archdiocese had updated its 2002 pamphlet for parishioners, Working Together to Prevent Sexual Abuse: Protecting Children and Young People , and published in the Archdiocese's newspaper the procedures for reporting sexual abuse.

C. Doe Sues the Archdiocese, and the Trial Court Grants the Archdiocese's Motion for Summary Judgment

Doe filed this action on October 16, 2017. His operative, first amended complaint named the Archdiocese, Our Lady of the Rosary, and Higson as defendants. Neither Our Lady of the Rosary nor Higson is a party to this appeal.3

Doe alleged the Archdiocese had a duty to protect him when he was entrusted to its care. Doe alleged the Archdiocese breached its duty in a variety of ways, including by negligently supervising and retaining Higson and by failing to properly investigate Higson. Doe also alleged the Archdiocese's duty to protect him included the duty to "educate, train and warn" Doe and other minors involved in youth programs at Our Lady of the Rosary "regarding prevention, detection and reporting of child abuse so as to help safeguard [Doe] and other participants from being sexually abused by priests and other adults associated with those programs." And Doe alleged the Archdiocese "had a duty to educate, train and warn parents and adult agents of [the Archdiocese] and other employees that had regular contact with or oversight of minors in [the Archdiocese's] schools and youth programs regarding prevention, detection and reporting of child abuse so as to help safeguard [Doe] and other minors from being sexually abused ...."

Doe further alleged the Archdiocese knew of the "epidemic" of priests sexually abusing minors and had "received a multitude of complaints that its priests had sexually abused minors" beginning in the 1950's. Doe alleged it was...

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