Ratcliff v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of L. A.

Decision Date19 May 2022
Docket NumberB302558
Citation79 Cal.App.5th 982,294 Cal.Rptr.3d 875
Parties Charles RATCLIFF, Jr., et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. The ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Appellants.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

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

Law Offices of Anthony DeMarco, Anthony M. DeMarco ; Esner, Chang & Boyer, Holly N. Boyer, Shea S. Murphy, Pasadena, and Kevin K. Nguyen for Plaintiffs and Respondents.

RUBIN, P. J.

Seven adults allege they were molested by a priest when they were children. They brought suit against The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles and related entities (Archdiocese or defendants), alleging defendants were vicariously liable for ratifying the molestation and directly liable for their own negligence in failing to supervise the priest, among other acts and omissions. The Archdiocese moved to strike the operative complaint under the anti-SLAPP law ( Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16 ), arguing that some of the acts by which it purportedly ratified the molestation or acted negligently constituted speech or litigation conduct protected by the anti-SLAPP statute. We conclude the anti-SLAPP motion was appropriately denied, and therefore affirm.

FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS
1. The Parties

Plaintiffs are seven alleged molestation victims; some sued in their own names, others preferred a "John Doe" designation. As their identities were revealed in discovery, the Archdiocese calls them all by their names in its briefs on appeal. In contrast, plaintiffs continue the naming conventions of their complaint, using names for some plaintiffs and John Does for others. In an abundance of caution, and to aid readability, we refer to the plaintiffs, in chronological order of alleged molestation, as Doe 1 through Doe 7.

Defendants are The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, a corporation sole; the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Education and Welfare Corporation; and three individual Catholic churches where the molestation allegedly occurred (St. Christopher in West Covina, St. Mary in Palmdale, and St Lawrence Martyr in Redondo Beach). For our purposes and unless the context requires otherwise, it is sufficient to refer to the defendants collectively as the Archdiocese. The priest who allegedly committed the molestation, Father Christopher Cunningham, is not a named defendant. Plaintiffs allege that the Archdiocese is liable for Father Cunningham's alleged acts of molestation.

At the time the trial court denied the anti-SLAPP motion, the court also sustained with leave to amend defendantsdemurrer, on the grounds of lack of specificity. The trial court expressed concern that the operative complaint was not clear as to which complainant was alleging which cause against which defendant.

2. The Facts as Alleged in the First Amended Complaint

The operative first amended complaint paints the picture of an Archdiocese which was willfully blind to its strong suspicions – and, perhaps, actual knowledge – of Father Cunningham's misconduct. We reiterate, these are only allegations. Plaintiffs allege that, rather than taking curative action in response to suspicions of, and accusations against, Father Cunningham with investigations, supervision, and limitation of access to children, the Archdiocese swept the charges under the proverbial rug and simply reassigned Father Cunningham to other parishes, where he was free to molest again.

We discuss the allegations in some detail, with particular attention to those by which plaintiffs assert the Archdiocese is liable for Father Cunningham's acts of abuse and molestation.1

A. The Archdiocese's Preexisting Policy for the Prevention of Child Molestation by Priests

According to the complaint, by 1989, prior to Father Cunningham's ordination, the Archdiocese had received complaints that no less than 22 of its priests had sexually molested children. It therefore "reduced to writing its policies for the prevention of child molestation by its priests," and provided a copy to all priests. "The policy prohibited priests: (1) having minors in their living quarters; (2) taking minors on unchaperoned outings; [and] (3) tickling, wrestling, kissing or hugging minors."

Father Cunningham was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese in 1990, when the written policy was in effect.

B. First Parish – Doe 1

Father Cunningham was first assigned as an associate pastor at St. Christopher. As alleged, "Soon after his arrival he began wrestling minors, tickling them, and asking them to go with him unchaperoned to movies and other fun activities." This was done openly on the school playground, visible to parish employees.

One of the boys who received the attention of Father Cunningham was 12-year-old Doe 1, whose mother worked at the church. One day in 1991, when Father Cunningham learned that Doe 1's mother was away on church business, Father Cunningham went to Doe 1's home. He went to the door and asked for Doe 1's mother; Doe 1 told Father Cunningham that his mother was not home and Father Cunningham could not come in. Father Cunningham entered anyway and sat down on the sofa next to the boy. Father Cunningham rubbed the boy's back and thigh, despite Doe 1's attempts to move away. Father Cunningham was interrupted by Doe 1's mother, who returned home early. She told Father Cunningham that he was not permitted in their home without her permission. She reported the conduct to a nun at the church and the church school's principal. Doe 1 also complained to the parish pastor. Father Cunningham continued his prohibited interactions with young boys unabated, "taking them to the movies, giving them gifts, playing with them and tickling them." Doe 1's mother believed this was "sexualized conduct" and that he was "grooming young boys."

C. Second Parish – Does 2, 3 and 4

In 1994, Father Cunningham was assigned as an associate pastor at St. Mary.

That year, the Archdiocese updated its policy for the prevention of child molestation. Now, the policy required any priest who became aware of a fellow priest's violation of the Archdiocese's policy to confront the violator and report the violation to the Vicar for Clergy.

According to the complaint, at St. Mary, Father Cunningham continued to violate the policy – he spent "extraordinary amounts of time alone with teen boys." He took them to the movies or for ice cream one-on-one; he wrestled them; he hugged them; he had them alone in his rectory bedroom. Parish staff observed Father Cunningham's conduct with the boys. The church pastor was aware that Father Cunningham had boys one-on-one alone with him in his rectory bedroom; the pastor informed parish staff that Father Cunningham was not allowed to have minors alone with him in his bedroom.

One of these boys was Doe 2 – Father Cunningham regularly wrestled with him and spent time alone with him in his bedroom. At least one other priest, Father Gleason, "expressed concern" about Father Cunningham bringing Doe 2 into the rectory. There were two incidents in which Father Cunningham wrestled with Doe 2 until one of Doe 2's family members stopped the wrestling when they believed the physical contact was inappropriate. In one such incident, Father Cunningham's groin was pressing against the child's rear end. When Doe 2 was 12 or 13, Father Cunningham took him alone to the movies and, during the movie, massaged the boy's genitals with his hand. Sometime later, he invited Doe 2 to his rectory bedroom. There, he told the boy that the Holy Spirit had a special connection with them and that was why they had a special way of showing affection, which nobody else could understand – Father Cunningham was groping the boy as he said this, and continued to engage in further sexual conduct. Doe 2 did not report this because Father Cunningham "was his friend and priest, because he believed him, because he loved him and trusted him."

Doe 3 worked in the parish office. Father Cunningham wrestled with Doe 3 in his rectory bedroom. Father Gleason, the priest who had "expressed concern" about Father Cunningham bringing Doe 2 into the rectory, warned Doe 3 "not to trust Father Cunningham." Shortly after this warning, Father Cunningham came into the parish office where Doe 3 was working alone and molested him by touching his genitals.

Doe 4 was an altar server at St. Mary. Father Cunningham molested him as well, hugging him, caressing his lower back, and putting his fingers inside Doe 4's pants. Doe 4, who was then 15, felt like Father Cunningham was making a sexual advance and he felt trapped. He told his mother that he did not want to be around Father Cunningham anymore. His mother agreed that he need not be. She then paid more attention to Father Cunningham and learned that he invited many boys out one-on-one. Doe 4's mother suspected that he may be acting inappropriately with the boys.

Plaintiffs also alleged that Father Miskella, another priest at St. Mary, wrote an evaluation in which he characterized Father Cunningham as too "immature." "Immature" has been "a code word used by Catholic Clergy for many years to describe a priest who spends too much time with minors and who is possibly sexually abusing them." Father Miskella also confidentially informed the Vicar for Clergy that he should speak with Father Gleason about Father Cunningham. Father Miskella concluded that Father Cunningham "is not mature enough to be a pastor." There is no indication that "any effort was made to discuss with Father Gleason his concerns or thoughts regarding Father Cunningham."

In 1998, a new priest became the administrator at St. Mary. Having learned that Father Cunningham had an underage boy in his rectory bedroom, the administrator counseled him not to do this. He also reported to the Archdiocese that "Father Cunningham was immature and had instances of imprudent conduct." As alleged, there was no follow-up.

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