Priest abuse
5:51 pm
Tue July 5, 2011

Mo. appeals court rules Catholic church not responsible for some abuse

In a ruling that advocates for victims of abusive priests are calling "terrible," a Missouri appeals court today upheld a 2010 trial court ruling that the Archdiocese of St. Louis cannot be held responsible for a priest who sexually abused a young parishioner because the abuse happened off of church property.

An attorney for the victim, Ken Chackes, says Missouri is one of a few states that requires such a high bar to hold church officials responsible.

The victim in this case, a 53-year-old man, says he was twice abused as a teenager by Father Thomas Cooper when Cooper was a priest at St. Mary Magdalen in south St. Louis City. The abuse took place at Cooper's cabin along the Big River in rural east central Missouri.

Cooper died two years before the unidentified victim filed suit, so the man sued the Archdiocese of St. Louis, saying the church was ultimately responsible for the priest's conduct.

In 2010, a trial court, using a 1997 Missouri Supreme Court opinion as its basis, dismissed the victim's case, saying that judicial review of the church's conduct would be an unwarranted government intrusion into religion, and that the church cannot be responsible for employee conduct that take place off Archdiocesan property. The appeals court ruling issued today agrees with the trial court.

David Clohessy of the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests called the ruling "shameful." Church officials, he said, admit that Cooper molested the victim in question.

"And yet they are trying and succeeding at avoiding any responsibility for this horrible crime because simply because the priest took the victim off church property," he said. "Basically, the lesson here for child molesters and their enablers and their employers is, go ahead and molest that girl that belongs to your congregation, but make sure you do it back at your own home."

Clohessy says Cooper would not have had private access to the victim without being in a position of authority and trust. Parents don't let the plumber take their kids alone, he said.

 A spokesman says the Archdiocese is aware of the ruling, but had no other comment.