A Philadelphia judge has ruled there is no civil cause of action for endangering the welfare of a child, tossing the claim from nine sex-abuse suits filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and several Roman Catholic priests, clergymen and schools.
In Doe 203 v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson granted the defendants' preliminary objections with regard to the plaintiff's claim that the criminal statute, 18 Pa.C.S. § 4304, implies a civil cause of action for endangering the welfare of a child.
Massiah-Jackson said legislative history shows the General Assembly "has had numerous opportunities to consider 18 Pa.C.S. § 4304" over the past 40 years but has "not given any indication of legislative intent to create a private cause of action."
Massiah-Jackson also disagreed with the plaintiff's assertion that he is part of a class for whose special benefit the law was enacted.
"The statute does not create or confer a right on those who claim they have been abused," Messiah-Jackson said. "Rather, like all criminal statutes, it is intended to protect the public in general from behavior which society finds abhorrent. When a statute is intended for the safety and welfare of the general public (by getting predators 'off the streets'), that does not create a private cause of action."
Massiah-Jackson said the ruling would apply to Doe 203 as well as the other eight similar suits filed last year against the archdiocese, Monsignor William J. Lynn, Archbishop Charles Chaput and his predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, as well as several priests and schools.
In Doe 203, Massiah-Jackson cited the state Superior Court's ruling in the 2000 case D'Errico v. DeFazio, reasoning that to find 18 Pa.C.S. § 4304 was enacted for the special benefit of the plaintiff "would be to imply a private right of action in all criminal statutes and for all victims of crime."
Massiah-Jackson further noted that the state Superior Court's 1994 ruling in Alfred M. Lutheran Distributors v. A.P. Weilersbacher required courts to determine whether implying a private right of action would be consistent with "'the underlying purpose of the legislative scheme.'"
Likewise, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1975 case Cort v. Ash, stated that courts attempting to determine whether an implied private right of action exists must look at whether the plaintiff belongs to a class for whose special benefit a statute was enacted, whether there is any indication of legislative intent to imply such a right and whether implying a private right of action is consistent with the underlying purposes of the legislative scheme.
To illustrate that 18 Pa.C.S. § 4304 was purely intended to be a criminal statute, Messiah-Jackson cited several examples from its legislative history.
In 1972, according to Massiah-Jackson, then-state Senator Louis Hill, who at the time was chair of the Judiciary Committee, described the goal of recently approved revisions to the Pa. Criminal Code as being to "'clarify the crimes'" and to "'even out the disparity of many different offenses.'"
Hill also called the new version of the Crimes Code "'tougher on the criminal'" and noted that it excluded "'offenses which are not really penal'" such as traffic, hunting and fishing offenses, according to Massiah-Jackson.
"It is reasonable to conclude that if the General Assembly believed that § 4304 was 'not really penal' the statute could have been and would have been handled differently," Massiah-Jackson said.
Massiah-Jackson also disagreed with the plaintiff's argument that child endangerment or abuse should be treated differently than other societal problems, saying there does not appear to be any other jurisdiction that expressly or implicitly provides for a civil claim of endangering the welfare of a child.
"Without clear legislative direction such a decision would be tantamount to judicial policy-making," Massiah-Jackson said.
Massiah-Jackson also ruled that the plaintiffs in all nine cases failed to state claims of civil conspiracy based on negligence or purported violation of the criminal statute and sustained the defendants' preliminary objections on those counts.
Massiah-Jackson did, however, allow the plaintiffs' claims for childhood sexual abuse and vicarious liability, negligence, negligent supervision and fraudulent concealment to proceed.
Daniel Monahan of Monahan Law Practice in Philadelphia, counsel for John Doe 203, told The Legal on Friday that Massiah-Jackson's ruling "leaves us plenty to go forward on with all our cases in terms of causes of action."
Counsel for Chaput and the archdiocese, Nicholas M. Centrella of Conrad O'Brien in Philadelphia, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Counsel for Rigali, Richard J. Zack of Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia, and for Lynn, Thomas A. Bergstrom of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Philadelphia, also could not be reached Friday afternoon.
(Copies of the 16-page opinion in Doe 203 v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, PICS No. 13-1319, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •