Federal appeals court to decide if lawsuit can proceed against Catholic order

Thursday, August 12, 1999

A federal appeals court is set to decide whether a sexual harassment lawsuit can proceed against a California religious order.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston dismissed a federal sexual harassment lawsuit brought against two Jesuit priests and three regional officials of the Society of Jesus. Illston ruled that the First Amendment's religious-liberty clauses, in part, barred the court from becoming involved in the dispute.

John Bollard was studying to be a Jesuit priest when he filed a Title VII sexual harassment suit against officials of the Society of Jesus, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Bollard claimed that from 1990 until 1996, while he was at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, he was sexually harassed by two Jesuit priests and that Society officials did not take action.

Bollard appealed Illston's decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the court heard arguments in the case earlier this summer.

Paul Gaspari, attorney for the Society of Jesus, said that he expected the court to rule any day. He said that his arguments before the appeals court were virtually the same as those he presented before Illston.

“I don't believe this case can be tried without infringing on ecclesiastical issues within the church,” Gaspari said.

Mary Patricia Hough, Bollard's attorney, said she didn't think that ministers should be exempt from the standards set for civil employers.

“If it were in front of the public, they would see that this isn't an issue of First Amendment protection,” Hough said.

She alleges that the priests clearly perpetrated the two types of sexual harassment covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by creating a hostile work environment in sending unwanted pornographic pictures to Bollard and by soliciting sex from him. Both priests would have had a part in deciding whether Bollard would be allowed to receive his vows, Hough said.

The case “does not get into church doctrine or ecclesiastical business,” Hough said. She said she hoped that the court would recognize that Title VII claims should be considered as generally applying to all, even to ministers.

Gaspari said he was optimistic about the court's decision but was prepared to do everything he could to see that the priests remain exempt from the Title VII allegations.

The church has a sexual misconduct policy and those matters are handled administratively within the organization, he says.