New York court upholds dismissal of misconduct suit against Catholic diocese

Friday, April 14, 2000

A New York state court has upheld the dismissal of a civil suit against a Catholic diocese and priest, saying that the First Amendment bars the court from determining whether the diocese and priest acted improperly toward a former parishioner.

In 1995, Susan Langford, then a member of Our Lady of Hope, which is part of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, sued the church, the diocese and Monsignor Nicholas Sivillo. Langford alleged in her complaint that Sivillo used his title and power to coerce her into a sexual relationship and sued for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, infliction of emotional distress and battery.

Langford first contacted Sivillo in 1988 after she was diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis. For years, Sivillo consoled Langford and told her “he would beseech the Lord to fill her with peace.” In early 1990, Langford’s multiple sclerosis went into remission and Sivillo told her it was his prayers that had “made her better.”

A quasi-intimate relationship between Sivillo and Langford began sometime in 1990 and later became fully sexual, according to the facts from the court opinion in Langford v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. In 1992, Langford concluded, with help from a therapist, that Sivillo had used and manipulated her.

In 1998, a New York Supreme Court in Kings County dismissed Langford’s lawsuit, claiming she had actually asserted a claim of malpractice against the religious institution. An appellate division of the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal earlier this week.

“The cause of action alleging that Sivillo negligently handled the counseling relationship in fact stated a claim for malpractice,” wrote Judge Fred T. Santucci for the majority in the April 10 decision. “As such, it was properly dismissed because any attempt to define the duty of care owed by a member of the clergy to a parishioner fosters excessive entanglement with religion.”

Judge Sondra Miller, the sole dissenter, chastised her colleagues for claiming the First Amendment prevented the court from determining whether the church physically and emotionally harmed Langford. Miller said the court should have considered whether the church’s actions violated a fiduciary duty owed to Langford, therefore enabling her to recover damages.

“I disagree most significantly with the majority’s holding that any attempt to define the duty of care owed by a member of the clergy to a parishioner fosters ‘excessive entanglement with religion,’ ” Miller wrote. “That holding will establish appellate precedent shielding from civil judicial examination even the most flagrant clerical misconduct perpetrated upon vulnerable parishioners, children as well as adults.”

Miller, moreover, said “the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was not intended to protect the misconduct of clergy where the examination of their conduct does not require any inquiry into church doctrine.”

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in Employment Div., v. Smith, Miller said the courts “have never held an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.”

“Monsignor Sivillo’s robes should not shield him from liability for egregious acts not sanctioned by his church or the secular community,” Miller wrote. “This case concerns far more than Langford’s claim against Sivillo. It presents this court with the opportunity to establish a deterrent to conduct that inflicts immeasurable harm upon victims who are deceived and abused by the religious leaders that they are taught to trust and depend upon from early childhood. Clearly Langford’s claim is not unique. That sexual abuse of religious adherents is committed by religious leaders across the globe, and in faiths ranging from Christianity to Judaism to Buddhism has been well documented.”

Calls to Langford’s attorney and the diocese concerning the decision were not returned.