Complex litigation attorneys Jay D. Miller and Jeff Utermohle of the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, PC recently sat down to discuss the firm’s handling of childhood sexual abuse claims involving the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
Q: What led the Peter Angelos firm to take on clergy childhood sexual abuse claims?
A: We have a history of successfully handling this type of case. We understand the long-term trauma that these abuse survivors have suffered. The sheer number of victims, and the complexity of the legal issues calls for the kind of deep-pocket resources that a firm like ours can offer. As it is entitled to under the law, the Church retains the very best legal counsel it can find. We believe that the survivors of abuse and their families deserve counsel that is every bit as capable, and just as committed to protecting their rights.
Q: Victims say that for many years the Church engaged in a coverup of the abuse scandal. Is there any precedent for this?
A: Yes, the root cause of the problem was the Church’s systematic coverup that perpetuated the horrific abuse. It recalls similar attempts to prevent people from discovering the truth about serious misdeeds. For example, Asbestos manufacturers knew, going all the way back to the 1930s, that asbestos causes disease and death, yet they chose to cover up that information to protect their corporate profits. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Anchem Products v. Windsor (1997), it was “a tale of danger known in the 1930s, exposure inflicted upon millions of Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, and injuries that began to take their toll in the 1960s.” The asbestos coverup caused untold misery, as did the Church’s coverup of childhood sexual abuse.
Q: Does the Angelos firm have a background in litigating against sophisticated defendants who covered up their wrongdoing?
A: Yes, in Asbestos, Tobacco, Groundwater Contamination, among others. The Angelos Firm has a history of taking on the biggest, most sophisticated defendants and winning. As one example, the Firm recovered a $4.5 billion settlement by representing the State of Maryland against the tobacco industry. We are now bringing to bear the same sort of dedication and resources in representing the survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Q: People often wonder: Can the Pope be held responsible for the negligent supervision of priests in America?
A: Yes. Liability for the negligent supervision of known pedophilic priests does not end at the diocesan level. Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, and as multiple federal circuit courts have held, legal responsibility extends right up the chain of authority, with the Pope and the Holy See facing vicarious liability. Respondeat superior means “the man higher up must answer.” As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recognized in a seminal case in 1999, Hutchison v. Luddy, the Church’s systemic failure to protect the flock’s youngest and most vulnerable members from known pedophiles makes the Church “even more liable than the molester himself.” The Hutchison court said the Church’s “inaction in the face of such a menace is not only negligent, it is reckless and abhorrent.” Seeking to avoid scandal, the Church’s coverup continued for decades.
Q: Why is the coverup important in the abuse scandal?
A: The coverup is really central to these cases. Diocesan Bishops responsible for supervising priests have a master-servant relationship with the Pope. The Pope hires and fires the Bishops. He has the right to control how they do their work. For example, in 1962 the Pope formalized a policy requiring the utmost secrecy in the handling of clergy sexual abuse cases. In an attempt to follow that policy, the Bishops in Pennsylvania did everything they could to keep victims silent. They perpetuated a coverup to avoid scandal and legal liability, and kept known pedophilic priests in the ministry. We know all this from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Reports. The coverup exponentially multiplied the number of victims and increased the harm done to them.
Q: Will the Pennsylvania clergy childhood sexual abuse claims be subject to class action treatment?
A: Sometimes a class action is an effective way to pursue justice. Other times, like in the asbestos cases, consolidation of claims or certain issues is more appropriate. The Peter Angelos firm achieved one of the largest-ever consolidations involving 8,500 steel and shipyard workers suffering from lung cancers and other asbestos-related diseases. Pennsylvania Rule 213 allows for consolidation of common questions of law or fact, and that may be a useful tool in these childhood sexual abuse cases.
Q: What ties does the Angelos Firm have to Pennsylvania?
A: For many years the Firm has maintained offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, and Harrisburg. The Firm has successfully represented thousands of Pennsylvanians.
Q: Does the firm offer split fee arrangements for client referrals?
A: Yes, under appropriate circumstances we do. Often the referring attorneys understand that a firm like ours is better positioned to take on the substantial expenses involved in complex litigation.