Doe v. Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Phoenix – 6/29/2023

July 31, 2023

Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One, holds that a timely motion for a new trial against one defendant does not necessarily toll the deadline for an appeal against all other defendants and that a diocese cannot be held directly or vicariously liable for a priest’s abuse that was not reported and could not have been reasonably foreseen.

In 2016, a man awoke from a coma after a motorcycle accident and saw a Catholic priest in his hospital room, which caused him to become aware of subconsciously repressed memories of sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a different Catholic priest.  The man sued the priest that abused him, and he sued the diocese and the religious order that employed the priest on theories of direct and vicarious liability.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the diocese and the religious order but allowed the claims against the priest to proceed.  After both summary judgment orders, the man filed motions for a new trial, and then appealed when those motions were denied.

The court of appeals dismissed the appeal of the summary judgment order in favor of the religious order because the man’s motion for a new trial against that defendant was untimely and thus did not toll the deadline for filing a notice of appeal.  The man argued that Arizona precedent provided that a timely motion for a new trial against one defendant tolls the deadline for a notice of appeal against all defendants, but the case on which he relied did not involve separately appealable final orders.  The court of appeals affirmed the order of summary judgment in favor of the diocese because there was no genuine issue of material fact.  The diocese could not be held directly liable because the man did not report the abuse at the time it occurred, and the diocese was not aware of inappropriate advances the priest had made against other young adult men.  The diocese likely was aware of a consensual homosexual relationship that caused the priest to leave seminary, but this would not have had any bearing on the risk the priest posed to children.  Unrelated abuse by other priests was also insufficient to put the diocese on notice of the priest’s threat of harm to children under his care.  The diocese could not be held vicariously liable because the priest was not acting in the scope of his employment when he abused the man.

Presiding Judge Cruz authored this opinion, in which Judges Paton and Kiley joined.

Posted by: Heather Robles