JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed a decision by a lower court that First Amendment protections shield religious employers from some lawsuits in certain cases of clergy abuse.
But the court also overturned part of the lower court’s decision, saying it erred in not allowing plaintiff John Doe to bring expert testimony backing his claims of intentional failure to supervise clergy before a jury.
The case now returns to the St. Louis County Circuit Court.
The decision came in the case of John Doe 122 v. Marianist Province of the United States and Chaminade College Preparatory Inc.
According to the 6-0 Supreme Court opinion, written by Judge Paul Wilson, Doe has said Marianist Brother John Woulfe, his counselor at Chaminade about 50 years ago, sexually abused him.
Doe filed suit against the high school in 2015, alleging negligent supervision and intentional failure to supervise clergy, among other counts.
In ruling against Doe, the circuit court ruled Missouri and U.S. Supreme Court precedent has held the state cannot interfere with church hiring practices. Doe appealed the decision.
The Missouri Supreme Court refused to overturn precedent, which said the government cannot judge the doctrinal and church policy issues involved in hiring without endangering the separation between church and state. It affirmed the lower court’s decision to toss the negligence claim.
But the court’s opinion said churches can still be liable for intentional conduct, such as when a supervisor disregards a known risk of “substantially certain” harm.
The court also said “summary judgments,” given without a trial, may only be granted when the facts are not in dispute.
That wasn’t true in Doe’s case, the court said, because Doe provided circumstantial evidence Chaminade knew Woulfe had a history of abusing minors.
“The actual grace left by this unusual situation may be one which helps you to confront and overcome the problem, which if left untended, would eventually become a serious one for religious life,” an excerpt from a letter in Woulfe’s file said.
Another mentioned “considerable misgivings and reservations” in retaining Woulfe at the school.
Father Thomas Doyle, an expert on clergy sexual abuse, testified written communication about Wolfe contained euphemistic language that could likely refer to child abuse.
Doyle “has spent more than 30 years reviewing thousands of priests’ personnel files, including those of hundreds of priests against whom sexual abuse allegations have been made,” the Supreme Court opinion said.
Other problems clergy might have — such as alcohol abuse, spiritual issues or relationships with adult women — were often addressed more directly, Doyle said in testimony the court cited.
“In essence, Father Doyle contends that a ‘code’ developed in the Catholic church for referencing a priest’s sexual abuse of children in personnel files and other records and that he understands — and can help the jury understand — that code,” the Supreme Court decision said.
While a jury might not find Doyle’s testimony convincing, the decision said the perspective he provides is a valid form of expertise and deserves to have a hearing in court.
Analogous testimony, such as a witness interpreting gang signs in graffiti, has been admitted in court, the decision said.
“The jury does not have to believe Father Doyle or believe anything he has to say applies to the records and other evidence in this case,” the Missouri Supreme Court said.
But “the jury may infer Chaminade knew the risk that Brother Woulfe would visit sexual abuse upon a student was certain or substantially certain and — if so — whether Chaminade disregarded that known risk. And they may not.”