RICO Civil Suits and the Church

A story by Zach Lowe in AmLaw Daily tells of a major law firm partner becoming one of six name plaintiffs in a lawsuit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York alleging sex abuse perpetrated by a former teacher at a Brooklyn Catholic prep school. The amended complaint in Zimmerman et al v. Poly Prep Country Day School et al. charges that the school covered up decades of sex abuse by the now deceased coach. Counts I through IV raise claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968.

Efforts to assert civil RICO claims for the Catholic Church cover-up of incidents of sexual abuse by priests have not fared well in the past. For example, the US District Court in Magnum v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia dismissed a class action against the archdiocese of Philadelphia on a 12(b)(6) motion, finding that the plaintiffs lacked RICO standing and failed to state a claim of RICO conspiracy. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal, emphasizing the inapplicability of civil RICO to personal injury claims. Lowe’s article also cites a “handful of past high-profile RICO claims alleging a conspiracy within the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese to cover up sex abuse [that] met with disastrous dismissals and a one-year suspension” for the plaintiff’s lawyer in those cases. For a discussion of criminal RICO liability, see Pursuing Criminal Liability for the Church and Its Decision Makers for Their Role in Priest Sexual Abuse (HeinOnline access) by Laura Russell in 81 Wash. U. L. Q. 885 (2003).

For more on the topic of child sexual abuse by clergy, the Brooklyn Law School Library has in its collection Sin against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church edited by Thomas G. Plante (Call # BX1912.9 .S56 2004).

The Library recently added to its collection Civil RICO: a Definitive Guide by Gregory P. Joseph (Call #KF9375 .J67 2010) with chapters on Jurisdiction and venue — Standing — Elements of cause of action — Imputed and secondary liability — Relief — Pleading and practice issues — Statutes of limitation — Res judicata and collateral estoppel — Constitutionality.