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NEGLIGENCE - Duty and standard of care - Duty of care - Causation - Foreseeability and remoteness

Friday, April 27, 2018 @ 8:33 AM  


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Action by the four plaintiffs for damages against the defendant, the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corp. of St. John's (Archdiocese). The plaintiffs were victims of abuse at the hands of several Christian Brothers during their childhood. At the time, they were residents of the Mount Cashel Orphanage for varying periods of time from the late 1940's until the late 1950's. They claimed damages for the abuse against the Archdiocese and The Christian Brothers Institute Inc. (Christian Brothers). The Archdiocese was the only remaining Defendant. The Christian Brothers did not participate in the trial, as bankruptcy proceedings in the United States resulted in the liquidation of its assets to attempt to satisfy the claims of those abused. The Christian Brothers appeared to have acknowledged liability, although no trial had taken place. The Archdiocese did not dispute that abuse took place. The plaintiffs asserted liability against the Archdiocese on three grounds. First, they argued liability attached because the Archdiocese had sufficient control over the orphanage to make it vicariously liable for the actions of the Christian Brothers. Second, they submitted that the Archdiocese was vicariously liable for the failure of the parish priest, Msgr. Ryan, at Mount Cashel to intervene to prevent the abuses upon receipt of knowledge. Third, they submitted that the Archdiocese was directly liable in negligence arising from its inaction in the face the abuses of which it had knowledge. The Archdiocese submitted that the evidential record disclosed insufficient connection between the Archdiocese and the orphanage for any of the grounds for liability. It argued that it was the Christian Brothers which operated the orphanage and were responsible for all of the personnel, policies, educational curriculum, contact between the perpetrators of the abuse and the residents, and the overall management of the facility. It also denied that negligence attached to the work of Msgr. Ryan as parish priest. The Archdiocese maintained that it discharged its responsibility appropriately when it became aware of abuse.

HELD: Action dismissed. There was a lack of evidence of control and direction by the Archdiocese in the affairs of the orphanage. The Archdiocese was not the employer of the Christian Brothers, or any of the civilian employees. It did not set the policies for the day to day life of the orphanage, admission of boys, direction of the Christian Brothers and civilian employees, and curriculum and teaching. That was all under the control of the Christian Brothers. The Archdiocese could not be found vicariously liable for the actions of the Christian Brothers. While Msgr. Ryan was an employee of the Archdiocese, he had no mandate or authority in the operations of the orphanage, and therefore no duty of care towards the residents. His role was to tend to the spiritual and religious needs of the boys, conduct services, and hear confessions. His quarters were separate from the rest of the orphanage, and he did not have access to either the boys or the Christian Brothers. The evidence on Msgr. Ryan’s knowledge of the abuse was weak. While witnesses disclosed abuse while in confession, Msgr. Ryan heard hundreds, perhaps thousands of confessions. There was only evidence of seven disclosures of physical and sexual abuse, and only five of the seven involved sexual abuse. While that evidence could be sufficient to raise a duty to intervene, there was no evidence whether Msgr. Ryan followed up with the Superior of the orphanage. Speculation was insufficient to satisfy the legal burden imposed on the plaintiffs, and, in the absence of any malfeasance, or nonfeasance, there was nothing for which the Archdiocese could be vicariously liable. Apart from the disclosures in the confessional, the only source of knowledge was an incident recorded in a memo from Fr. O'Keefe to the Archbishop in January 1954, which alleged the abuse of a boy by a civilian employee of the orphanage. The expert witnesses for both the plaintiffs and the Archdiocese agreed that having satisfied himself that the matter was handled by the Superior of the orphanage, the Archbishop discharged any responsibility under the Canon Law. The same considerations applied to the civil law. Even if proximity and foreseeability were established, by following up with the Superior, and being satisfied that the civilian employee was fired and the police were involved, any duty was discharged. The Archdiocese was not liable for the abuse suffered by the plaintiffs.

John Doe (G.E.B. #25) v. Roman Catholic Episcopal Corp. of St. John's, [2018] N.J. No. 80, Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court - General Division, March 16, 2018. Digest No. TLD-April232018010