New Jersey Appellate Division Establishes Personal Jurisdiction Rules for Nonresident Defendants in Clergy-Abuse Claims
In December 2023, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, published its opinions in three cases, establishing new law concerning whether a nonresident diocese is subject to personal jurisdiction in New Jersey for past sexual abuse by a priest.
Lawsuits alleging sexual assault/abuse of minors recently spiked in New Jersey following the enactment of the State’s Child Victims Act in 2019. The Act provided a two-year revival window until 2021 for victims to file otherwise time-barred claims for sexual abuse committed against them while minors. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2b(a). Thereafter, victims may file civil claims for child abuse before their 55th birthday or within seven years of realizing that the abuse caused them harm. The Act also amended the State’s Charitable Immunity Act to allow retroactive liability against religious and other charitable organizations. N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(c); N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2b(b).
Although eleven states have passed statute of limitations bills similar to New Jersey’s, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has yet to enact a similar law. Thus, many plaintiff’s attorneys in Pennsylvania are “forum shopping” by developing creative arguments to file lawsuits against Pennsylvania defendants in New Jersey because of its more plaintiff-friendly deadlines to file cases involving childhood sexual abuse.
However, in a series of decisions that may impact both religious and non-religious institutions, the Appellate Division held that personal jurisdiction in New Jersey cannot be established by merely alleging that a member of the clergy of an out-of-state diocese abused a minor within the boundaries of New Jersey.
D.T. v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, et al. and John Doe v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia
In D.T., the plaintiff alleges that Michael J. McCarthy served as a priest in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania from 1965 to 1975. In 1971, the plaintiff claims that McCarthy took the then 14-year-old, to Margate, New Jersey, where he was sexually abused by McCarthy.
The plaintiff in Doe alleges that in 1981, when he was about 12 years old, he was sexually abused by Father Francis Trauger at a seminary in Pennsylvania. After the boy’s father suspected the abuse by Father Trauger, his father sent him to Father John P. Schmeer for counseling. The plaintiff alleges that Father Schmeer then sexually abused him on numerous occasions, including multiple times at Father Schmeer’s home in Mystic Island, New Jersey.
The plaintiffs in both cases appealed trial court orders dismissing their respective claims against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for lack of personal jurisdiction. The trial courts uniformly held that there were no facts to establish that the Archdiocese purposefully availed itself of any benefits in or from New Jersey related to priests’ alleged abuse of the plaintiffs. On December 7 and December 27, 2023, the appellate panel affirmed the trial courts’ orders in both cases.
Both cases turned on the courts’ analysis of the Archdiocese’s minimum contacts with New Jersey, or the lack thereof. Superior Court, Appellate Division, Judges Robert J. Gilson, Maritza Berdote Byrne, and Avis Bishop-Thompson, who presided over both cases found that the Archdiocese had not owned any real property in New Jersey since 2013 and does not oversee or operate any churches, parishes, or religious facilities in New Jersey. The Archdiocese also does not assign priests to parishes in the state. Further, the Archdiocese's past property ownership in New Jersey was unrelated to the abuse of either plaintiff, and neither plaintiff had ever been to those properties.
More importantly, however, the Appellate Division found that there was no evidence that the Archdiocese controlled, supervised, or was aware of the alleged abuse committed by McCarthy or Schmeer in New Jersey. In fact, the first reported sexual assault allegation against McCarthy occurred in 1986, fifteen years after D.T.’s claimed abuse. Even more, the Appellate Division found that neither plaintiff could show evidence that the Archdiocese sanctioned or approved of McCarthy or Schmeer taking the respective plaintiffs to private homes in New Jersey. Ultimately, the Appellate Division found that the priests were not acting within the scope of their responsibilities as priests when they sexually abused the plaintiffs.
JA/GG Doe 70 v. Diocese of Richmond, et al.
Using the same analysis as the prior two cases, Appellate Division Judges Gilson, Byrne, and Bishop-Thompson found that the Diocese of Richmond (Virginia) was subject to personal jurisdiction in New Jersey. In JA/GG, the plaintiff alleges that he was abused several times between 1995 and 1998, at the ages of nine and twelve, by Father John Butler – who was incardinated to the Diocese of Richmond from 1957 until he retired in 2002. However, unlike the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the cases above, the Court found evidence that the Diocese of Richmond had prior notice of Butler’s alleged abuse and availed itself of the benefits of New Jersey.
First, after two incidents in Virginia, including being reprimanded for grooming a young boy and taking the boy on an out-of-town trip, the Diocese of Richmond encouraged Butler to leave the D.C.-Virginia region. Butler then moved to New York where he was accused of and admitted to sexually abuse two thirteen and fourteen-year-old boys. Butler was terminated from his New York post and the Bishop of Richmond was notified. Critically, the Court reviewed a letter where the Bishop of Richmond encouraged Butler to find a “benevolent bishop” in a diocese where he could find a fresh start. Thereafter, Butler received permission to go to Trenton as a priest. Later, when the Diocese of Metuchen formed out of Trenton, Butler was again given permission by Richmond to serve in New Jersey.
Based on these facts, the trial court and then the Appellate Division held that even though the Diocese of Richmond did not own property or have parishes in New Jersey, it was still subject to personal jurisdiction. The Court held that there was evidence to support the plaintiff’s contention that the Diocese of Richmond knew of Butler’s history of sexual abuse allegations and sexual propensities towards children. Even with that knowledge, the Diocese of Richmond still encouraged Butler to seek other placements and permitted Butler to twice serve as a priest in New Jersey. The Court highlights that during the time Butler was outside of the Richmond area, the Diocese of Richmond retained the sole authority to end Butler’s priestly ministry.
These rulings place practitioners on notice that cases filed under New Jersey’s Child Victims Act still require a strict showing of personal jurisdiction for nonresident defendants. When an abuse victim sues the employer or sponsor of their assailant, the plaintiff must produce evidence that:
- The defendant owned property in the state and that ownership relates to the plaintiff’s cause of action;
- The defendant controlled, supervised, or had knowledge of the alleged sexual assault or their employee/servant/agent’s propensity to sexually abuse children; or
- The employee/servant/agent was acting within the scope of his/her work responsibilities when he/she sexually abused the plaintiff and was not acting unilaterally.
Disclaimer: This post does not offer specific legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. You should not reach any legal conclusions based on the information contained in this post without first seeking the advice of counsel.