Friday, November 12, 2010
C.A. Upholds Dismissal of Suit Against Church Diocese
Priests’ Flight From Country Put Plaintiff on Inquiry Notice, Panel Says
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A mother whose sons were molested by two priests in the Diocese of Sacramento was on notice of possible wrongdoing once she learned the pair had fled the country, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday.
The justices affirmed a judgment in favor of the diocese, saying the mother’s causes of action accrued nearly two decades ago and that the trial judge correctly sustained a demurrer based on the statute of limitations.
The plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe, was employed by the diocese, beginning in 1989. She alleged in the complaint that she worked for Fr. Gerardo Beltran, and that she received spiritual and personal counseling from Beltran, as well as from Fr. Jose Luis Urbina, who she knew before going to work for the church.
Doe, a mother of 10 who married at the age of 15, was divorced from her husband and considered the priests to be surrogate fathers to her children.
Urbina pled guilty to molesting another child in June 1989, but fled the country before sentencing. Beltran was later accused of molestation and fled the country in late 1991.
As a loyal Catholic, Doe said in her complaint, she did not believe what church officials knew or should have known, “that the priests supposedly caring for her and her family and providing secular counseling were in fact pedophiles and a danger to her children.” Like other parishioners, she said, she did not believe the priests were guilty until her sons—who filed their own lawsuit—told her in 2007.
As a result of the church’s wrongful conduct, and its impact on her sons, the plaintiff claimed she “suffered physical, mental and emotional health problems as a result of which she has had to employ, and will in the future continue to have to employ, medical and mental health professionals for diagnosis and treatment.”
Retired Monterey Superior Court Judge John Anton, sitting on assignment, sustained the diocese’s demurrer on several grounds. He held that all claims were time-barred, that she could not recover damages based on injuries inflicted on her sons when she was not present and of which she was not contemporaneously made aware, that she insufficiently alleged the church’s knowledge of the priests’ misconduct, and that her claims of fraud were insufficiently specific.
Justice George Nicholson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct as to the statute of limitations, and that it was therefore unnecessary to rule on any of the other issues.
A reasonable person in the mother’s position—knowing that the priests had been accused, and in one case convicted, of molesting children; that they had regular, unsupervised access to her own children; that they had fled the country in the face of the allegations; and that her children had manifested emotional problems in the time period following their interactions with the priests—would have investigated whether the priests molested her children, Nicholson concluded.
Nicholson rejected the argument that an inquiry by the mother might not have revealed the molestation, given the possible shame the sons may have felt and “cultural taboos, especially in the Mexican-American community.”
The justice explained:
“This claim misconstrues the duty to investigate. Doe was not under a duty to discover, merely to investigate diligently. If she had diligently investigated nearly 20 years ago, she would have satisfied her duty to investigate, regardless of whether other forces, such as her sons’ emotional state, may or may not have prevented her from gaining actual knowledge of the molestation. If she had diligently investigated, she could now show that diligent investigation did not reveal the molestation, rather than simply speculating that might be so. Because she did not diligently investigate — she did not investigate at all — she cannot now rebut the presumptive knowledge she had nearly 20 years ago of the abuse.”
Nor can the plaintiff credibly claim that she did not associate the priests’ flight from the country with the child molestation charges that she believed they were innocent of.
“No reasonable person could conclude from these alleged facts that Doe did not know, nearly 20 years ago, why Urbina and Beltran fled the country. She was closely associated with the parish and, especially, the specific priests. The reason for the priests’ flight was well known. She, herself, did not believe the accusations. Therefore, her argument that she did not know why Urbina and Beltran fled fails.”
The case is Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento, C061842.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company