Priests Could Face Additional Sex Suits
Appellate Court Says Parishioners May Sue for Exploitation

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
February 15, 2003

Opening the door to more lawsuits over sexual misconduct by the clergy, a state appellate court ruled Friday that a priest may be sued for seducing a parishioner who came to him for counseling.

The ruling by a Court of Appeal panel in San Francisco is the first in California to allow an adult parishioner to proceed with such a lawsuit, which differs from cases involving child molestation in the church. Unlike molestation, sex between consenting adults is legal, and courts have long since abolished once-common suits that claim one person seduced another under false pretenses.

But the court said a parishioner may be so dependent on a pastor for advice and guidance, and so vulnerable, that the pastor should be considered legally responsible for exploiting the relationship.

However, the court refused to reinstate a lawsuit by a woman who said she had been seduced in 1999 by a priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Redwood City and suffered anguish, depression and loss of her faith. She also alleged that San Francisco's Roman Catholic Archdiocese had known of the priest's sexual misconduct and ignored it.

The court said it might have allowed the suit if the woman had consulted the priest for marital counseling or another secular purpose, or if she claimed some other nonreligious reason for being vulnerable. But her allegation -- that the priest knowingly took advantage of her exceptionally pious nature -- could not be evaluated without involving the judiciary in a forbidden religious inquiry, said Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline.

Brian McCaffrey, the woman's attorney, said he was disappointed by the court's conclusion but predicted the ruling would help others.

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