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Archdiocese of Milwaukee v. Superior Court

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Court: Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 3, California
Instrument(s) Cited: California Code of Civil Procedure §410.1: California Courts may exercise jurisdiction over nonresidents on any basis not inconsistent with the Constitution of this state or of the United States.
Citation: 112 Cal.App.4th 423 (2003)
Date: 1 October 2003

United States Constitution – Interpretation by the US Supreme Court:
– A defendant might be subject to jurisdiction in a state (“forum state”) if the defendant engaged in intentional conduct in another state that was “expressly aimed at or targeting the forum state,” and the defendant knew the intentional conduct would cause harm in the forum state.
– The federal Constitution permits a state to exercise jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant if the defendant has sufficient “minimum contacts” with the forum state that “maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’”
– “The ‘substantial connection’ between the defendant and the forum state necessary for a finding of minimum contacts must come about by an action of the defendant purposefully directed toward the forum state.”

Case summary

Background: In 1967, Fr. Siegfried Widera, a Roman Catholic priest, was assigned to the Milwaukee Archidocese. In 1973, a criminal complaint was filed against Widera in Wisconsin Circuit Court, alleging that he engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a boy. Widera was convicted of sexual misconduct in 1973 and sentenced to three years’ probation. Despite the Archbishop of Milwaukee, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and the Archdiocesan Personnel Board knowing about Widera’s criminal conviction, they transferred him to the Diocese of Orange in California three years later. While arranging the transfer the Milwaukee Archbishop told the Orange Diocese that Widera had a “moral problem having to do with a boy in school”, but never mentioned his sexual misconduct. While in California Widera continued to molest children. In 1985, a parishioner filed a complaint in California against the Orange Diocese, the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and Widera, alleging at least 11 instances of sexual abuse by Widera. The victim alleged that even though the defendant dioceses knew and should have known that Widera had sexually abused children, the defendant dioceses covered up the abuses, continued to allow him to work with children and held him out as one who could be trusted with children, and continued to transfer him to different churches within the defendant dioceses. In response the Milwaukee Archdiocese filed a motion arguing that the California court had no jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion and the Milwaukee Archdiocese appealed.

Issue and resolution: Child sexual abuse; whether a California court had jurisdiction to hear claims against a defendant located in Wisconsin. The Court found that: 1. an archdiocese can be considered to have engaged in intentional conduct expressly aimed at or targeting a state (other than the state where it is located) knowing the intentional conduct would cause harm in that state when it allowed a priest convicted of sexual abuse to continue working with children; 2. the victim’s claims are related to or arise out of the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s forum contacts; and 3. an assertion of specific jurisdiction by a state is fair when determining fair play and substantial justice.

Court reasoning:Purposeful availment The trial court had concluded that the evidence was sufficient to show that the Milwaukee Archdiocese knew Widera was a pedophile and posed a serious threat to boys in California, but that it chose to transfer him there in the hope that he would be out of its jurisdiction. By sending Widera to California the Milwaukee Archdiocese aimed its intentional conduct directly at that state, which resulted in serious harm to parishioners in California. The Court rejected the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s claim that it sufficiently disclosed Widera’s prior misconduct to the California Diocese. Moreover, the legal test did not require the Milwaukee Archdiocese to know the specific identities of Widera’s future victims. Instead, the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s conduct targeted a known group of Californian residents including Roman Catholic boys.    

Relationship between the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s contacts and the forum The victim alleged that when he was molested by Widera, the Milwaukee Archdiocese knew that he had already sexually abused boys but covered up these abuses, which allowed him to continue to serve in the church and made him appear trustworthy with children. The Milwaukee Archdiocese argued in defence that it was not liable as it had no connection to California at the time the victim was molested, and that the California Diocese was responsible for Widera after 1977. In a prior case this argument had been rejected. Instead, the test was whether the victim’s claims were substantially connected to the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s contacts with California. The Court concluded that they were. Fair play and substantial justice 

The Court concluded that: (1) the Milwaukee Archdiocese could defend itself in California without an unreasonable burden on it; (2) California had a strong interest in asserting jurisdiction over the Milwaukee Archdiocese, protecting children from sexual abuse and providing a forum to assert such claims; (3) the victim had an interest in obtaining relief in California; (4) asserting jurisdiction over the Milwaukee Archdiocese in California would provide the most efficient resolution of the controversy because the victim’s claims against the California Diocese were pending there; and (5) Wisconsin and California had a shared interest in furthering the social policy of protecting children from sexual abuse. Therefore, the assertion of jurisdiction over Milwaukee Archdiocese was fair.

Impact: The Court ruling in favour of the victim meant that the Milwaukee Archdiocese was held liable for transferring an abusive priest inter-state and failing to disclose the priest’s previous child molestation conviction. The decision was the first time a California appeals court had ruled on whether out-of-state Roman Catholic officials can be held liable for failure to report past misconduct, which could affect many other cases statewide.

Notes: Review of this decision was denied in 2004. Widera was removed from the ministry in 1985 following the abuse allegations. Widera fled the United States and committed suicide in Mexico in May 2003. He had been charged with a total of 42 counts of child molestation in California and Wisconsin. In August 2006, the Milwaukee Archdiocese agreed to pay $13.3 million to eight California victims of Widera, and to produce records so “transparency, accountability and responsibility can and could be assessed with the hope of providing closure to the settling plaintiffs.” This is in addition to the $15 million settlement in favour of the victims with the Orange Diocese in California in 2004. In February 2007, a Los Angeles judge ordered the Milwaukee Archdiocese to release confidential church files on Widera as part of the 2006 settlement, ruling the documents show that “priests with known sexual proclivities have been handed off from one location to another without regard to the potential harm” to children.

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