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A Manhattan judge has held that the Roman Catholic Church may be sued over the actions of a priest who allegedly exercised undue influence to get an elderly woman to give him almost $500,000. The estate of Rose Cale last year sued Monsignor John Woolsey, the former pastor of Manhattan’s St. John the Martyr Church, and the Archdiocese of New York, claiming Woolsey abused his position to solicit gifts of money and stock from Cale, who died in 2003. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicted Woolsey in July on several counts, including grand larceny and preparing a false tax return. The archdiocese sought to have itself dismissed from the lawsuit on the grounds that the monsignor was an independent contractor and that allowing the suit to proceed would necessitate an investigation of ecclesiastical practices in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. The church also said many of the claims of Cale’s estates were barred by statute of limitations. In Naegele v. Archdiocese of New York, 0110114/04, Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden agreed that claims regarding acts committed more than three years before the suit’s July 12, 2004, filing were time barred. Those acts included Woolsey’s alleged 1999 request that Cale give him $100,000 to buy a condominium at the Jersey shore. But Madden said Cale’s estate could proceed with negligent supervision and vicarious liability claims against the archdiocese over acts committed by the monsignor after July 2001. The judge acknowledged that a claim of negligent supervision, which requires the plaintiff to show constructive knowledge by the supervising party, would “amount to excessive entanglement by government into ecclesiastical matters” if it relied on general allegations that the church was aware priests have abused their positions to obtain sums of money from parishioners for their personal use. She said the plaintiff would have to be specific. “To the extent that Ms. Cale’s executor may be able to establish through discovery or otherwise that the Archdiocese had actual or constructive knowledge about Monsignor Woolsey’s propensity to exert undue influence over parishioners to obtain gifts of money or property, the plaintiff may have a cause of action sounding in negligent supervision that does not run afoul of the First Amendment,” the judge wrote. The church also argued against the claim of vicarious liability on the grounds that Woolsey’s actions lay outside the scope of his duties as a priest and were not reasonably foreseeable on the church’s part. But the judge said a jury could conclude that the monsignor’s solicitation of personal gifts from Cale was so intertwined with his solicitations on behalf of the church that “his conduct could not be viewed as a total departure from the Archdiocese’s business.” Madden also said Woolsey’s conduct could be found reasonably foreseeable in light of other examples within the world of non-profit fund raising as well as within the archdiocese. Cale’s estate is represented by Brian Caplan of Labaton, Sucharow & Rudoff. The archdiocese is represented by Jonathan Harwood of Traub Eglin Lieberman Straus. Woolsey is represented by Christopher Houlihan of Putney, Twombly, Hall & Hirson.

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