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Doe v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic

January 8, 2020

JOHN DOE 1, Plaintiff,

          Nicholas M. Centrella, for plaintiff (Conrad O'Brien, PC, attorneys).

          David K. Inschio, for defendants (Kline & Specter, attorneys).


          C. SMITH, J.S.C.

         Plaintiff, John Doe, initiated this tort action against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (hereinafter "Archdiocese") and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary (hereinafter "St. Charles") (together referred to as "Archdiocese defendants"). The Archdiocese defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint raising defenses of lack of personal jurisdiction, statute of limitations and forum non conveniens. This court will first address the jurisdiction and forum issues.


         The Archdiocese was, and continues to be, a Roman Catholic organization and non-profit religious corporation authorized to conduct business in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with its principal place of business in Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. In 1969 through 1973, Craig Brugger (hereinafter "Brugger") was a seminarian at St. Charles, a theological seminary owned and operated by the Archdiocese, with a principal place of business in Wynnewood, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. As a seminarian, Brugger was admitted to the diaconate of the Archdiocese. In May 1973, Brugger was ordained as a priest in the Archdiocese and assigned to St. Anne's Parish, Phoenixville, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Brugger remained an ordained priest in the Archdiocese until he was laicized in June 2006.

         Plaintiff grew up in Phoenixville, Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his immediate family and maternal grandparents. Plaintiff and his family were devout Catholics and members of St. Anne's Parish. His grandfather attended mass daily and his grandmother often invited clergy to the family home. Plaintiff's uncle, Peter McLaughlin, and Brugger contemporaneously attended St. Charles and lived on the same dormitory floor.

         In the summer of 1972, plaintiff was approximately seven (7) years old. During that same summer, while Brugger was a deacon in the seminary, plaintiff's family invited Brugger to join them at their vacation home in Brigantine, Atlantic County, New Jersey. That vacation constituted the first time plaintiff met Brugger. Plaintiff alleges that during that vacation Brugger took him to a bathroom at the beach and rubbed his genitals and then Brugger offered him candy. Subsequent to this trip, Brugger was ordained and assigned to St. Anne's Parish.

         Plaintiff alleges that, while in Pennsylvania, Brugger continued to sexually abuse him, escalating from fondling to oral sex. Plaintiff alleges that Brugger threatened to retaliate against his family if plaintiff reported Brugger's conduct. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that Brugger coerced plaintiff to remain silent about the abuse by reminding him that the church provided plaintiff's family with significant charity and the church would retaliate against his family. Plaintiff also alleges he felt threatened by Brugger. Specifically, plaintiff feared that Brugger would abuse plaintiff's younger brother. Plaintiff alleges that Brugger was physically violent at times, even striking plaintiff on his head with Brugger's ring.

         In 1974, plaintiff reported the abuse to St. Anne's pastor, Father Griffin. Father Griffin allegedly told plaintiff, "these things did not happen and that people should not speak of these types of matters." In 1976, a nun - Sister Rose - allegedly intervened on plaintiff's behalf to keep Brugger away. Shortly after this intervention, Brugger was transferred to Resurrection of Our Lord Parish, Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

         While Brugger was at St. Anne's Parish, plaintiff alleges that Brugger transported him from Pennsylvania to New Jersey on three (3) separate occasions, with molestation occurring each time. One trip was to Gloucester City where McLaughlin, plaintiff's uncle, was a priest. During the car ride there, Brugger allegedly sexually abused plaintiff. Brugger later took plaintiff to the Gloucester County rectory to further the abuse; however, plaintiff fled. During two of these trips, plaintiff alleges that Brugger secreted plaintiff at a hotel and rectory room and sexually assaulted him, including sodomizing plaintiff. When plaintiff was approximately twelve (12) years old, the abuse ended.

         At the end of 2014, plaintiff attended a family wedding, wherein a family dispute arose between plaintiff's sister, parents and priest-uncle, McLaughlin. In December 2014, plaintiff took his parents to St. Anne's. This was the first time in many years that plaintiff returned to St. Anne's Parish. While there, plaintiff experienced "perceptual distortions" with the "church becoming massive" while he felt very small and scared. Thereafter, plaintiff began having nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of abuse.

         On April 29, 2015, plaintiff began treatment with therapist, Christy Yerk-Smith. During treatment in May 2015, plaintiff acknowledged that he had been sexually abused by Brugger.


         With regard to the negligence claim (Count I), plaintiff asserts a number of specific acts of negligence, including that the Archdiocese defendants failed to: (1) observe and supervise the relationship between plaintiff and Brugger or have policies requiring such supervision; (2) investigate plaintiff's sexual abuse complaint to Father Griffin, which was made in Pennsylvania; (3) investigate prior sexual abuse of another unidentified victim also alleged to have occurred in Phoenixville; (4) investigate Brugger taking plaintiff to the rectory of St. Anne's Parish, Phoenixville; and (5) adequately check Brugger's background before admitting him to St. Charles and ordaining him as a priest in Pennsylvania. As to his negligent supervision claim (Count II), plaintiff claims that the Archdiocese defendants should have supervised plaintiff and Brugger and investigated Brugger after plaintiff allegedly complained of the abuse to Father Griffin. Regarding plaintiff's negligent hiring claim (Count III), plaintiff alleges a number of failings by the Archdiocese defendants related to their selection and retention of Brugger as a seminarian, deacon and later ordained priest.

         In support of their motion, Archdiocese defendants argue that no evidence supports the proposition that New Jersey has specific or general jurisdiction over them. The Archdiocese defendants assert that this court does not have personal jurisdiction as Brugger was acting outside of the scope of his employment. As to general jurisdiction, they assert that plaintiff's actual claims of negligence, negligent supervision and negligent hiring and retention, all concern the Archdiocese defendants' alleged conduct in Pennsylvania, not New Jersey. The Archdiocese defendants assert that without any specific acts by the Archdiocese defendants shown to have occurred in, or been directed toward, New Jersey, plaintiff cannot establish the minimum contacts necessary to satisfy constitutional due process.

         In opposition to this motion, plaintiff asserts that New Jersey has personal jurisdiction over the Archdiocese defendants based on the multiple sexual assaults on plaintiff by the Archdiocese defendants' agent, Brugger, while in New Jersey. Whether this court has personal jurisdiction over the Archdiocese defendants is inextricably tied to whether they can be held vicariously liable for the sexual abuse by Brugger. Plaintiff argues that the Archdiocese defendants may be subject to specific jurisdiction based on the actions of Brugger, their agent. Plaintiff asserts that under the Restatement (Second) of Agency § 219 an employer is liable for the actions of its agent, even if outside of the scope of employment, if the agent was purporting to act on behalf of the principal or was aided in commission of the tort by his position as an agent. Restatement (Second) of Agency § 219 (Am. Law Inst. 1958). Plaintiff suggests that Brugger used his authority and position as a priest for the Archdiocese to obtain, and maintain, access to plaintiff in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. According to plaintiff, Brugger's actions can be directly attributed to the Archdiocese defendants and, so, New Jersey can assert personal jurisdiction.

         To further support plaintiff's position, he cites the 2005 Philadelphia Grand Jury report regarding the defendant Archdiocese's secreting of pervasive molestation of minors by priests since the late 1960s.[1]


         In assessing jurisdiction, this court starts with the premise that territorial presence in the forum state is the basic prerequisite for subjecting a defendant to its in personam jurisdiction. Citibank, N.A. v. Estate of Simpson, 290 N.J.Super. 519, 526 (App. Div. 1996). In lieu of actual territorial presence, "in personam jurisdiction may be predicated upon the defendant's contacts with the forum provided they meet the standard of minimum contacts." Ibid. "A state court's assertion of personal jurisdiction over a defendant must comport with the due-process of the fourteenth amendment." Charles Gendler & Co. v. Telecom Equip. Corp., 102 N.J. 460, 469 (1986). "Rule 4:4-4, this state's equivalent of a 'long-arm statute,' permits service of process on non-resident defendants 'consistent with due process of law.'" Ibid. (citing Avdel Corp. v. Mecure, 58 N.J. 264, 268 (1971)). Consequently, New Jersey "allows out-of-state service to the uttermost limits permitted by the United States Constitution." Ibid. (citing Avdel Corp., 58 N.J. at 268).

         "Originally the United States Supreme Court construed the due-process clause to require the personal presence of the defendant in the jurisdiction." Ibid. See Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878). The Court later ruled:

[D]ue process requires only that in order to subject a defendant to a judgment in personam, if he be not present within the territory of the forum, he have certain minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ...

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