Court/Judicial body: United States District Court, Central District of California
Date: 25 February 2011 CRC
Provisions: Article 34: Sexual exploitation
Other international provisions: Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7: Rape and torture listed as examples of crimes against humanity. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture.
Domestic provisions: Alien Tort Statute (ATS): federal statute that grants district courts original jurisdiction over civil claims (i) brought by non-US nationals, (ii) for torts, and (iii) committed in violation of customary intemational law.
Background: Juan Doe 1 (Plaintiff), a Mexican national, filed suit against American Defendants Cardinal Mahony and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles (Archdiocese of Los Angeles) and Mexican Defendants Cardinal Rivera, Nicolas Aguilar Rivera (Aguilar), and the Diocese of Tehuacan under the ATS. The Plaintiff alleged that he was sexually abused by Aguilar, a priest, when he was 12 years old as an altar boy and that the other Defendants conspired to conceal the widespread sexual abuse committed by Aguilar. The Plaintiff alleged that Cardinal Rivera and the Diocese of Tehuacan supervised, protected, and facilitated Aguilar’s actions in Mexico, and that Cardinal Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles aided Aguilar in avoiding detection by authorities during the time that he worked in Los Angeles in 1987 and in eventually fleeing to Mexico. The Plaintiff alleged claims for: (1) rape and sexual abuse; (2) crimes against humanity; (3) torture; (4) cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; (5) conspiracy based on Aguilar’s alleged rape and sexual abuse of him, and the other Defendants’ conspiracy to conceal and not report such acts; (6) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (7) negligence and negligent supervision/failure to warn against Cardinal Rivera and the Diocese of Tehuacan; (8) negligence and negligent failure to warn against Cardinal Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The American Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the Plaintiff’s allegations for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and asserted among other things that: the Plaintiff’s ATS claims are time-barred by the ATS’ statute of limitations; the Plaintiff is not a victim of a crime under international law; the Plaintiff has not exhausted remedies under Mexican law; the Archdiocese of Los Angeles cannot be liable under the ATS because it is a corporation; and the Plaintiff cannot state an ATS claim against Cardinal Mahony under a conspiracy theory.
Issue and resolution: Child sexual abuse. The Court denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Court reasoning: Subject matter jurisdiction does not rely on whether the plaintiff has sufficiently stated an ATS claim, so the Court did not need to address such arguments. Dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction only occurs where the claim is wholly insubstantial and frivolous, implausible, clearly baseless, fanciful, incredible and delusional, or otherwise completely devoid of merit. The Plaintiff’s claims were neither legally nor factually frivolous. Under California law, children who are victims of sexual abuse have until they are 26 to file an action. The Plaintiff filed an application in 2010 when he was 24. Consequently, the action was not time-barred. The sexual abuse, rape and torture that the Plaintiff alleged are well established as actionable offences under the ATS and are enshrined as offences which violate the “preemptory norms of international law”. The Plaintiff does not need to exhaust all remedies before making an ATS claim. If this were to be required in certain cases, the burden of justifying that requirement, including the availability of local remedies, would fall to the Defendants, which they have not done. Because the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over Aguilar under the ATS, the Court has “supplemental jurisdiction” over the remaining Mexican and American Defendants, and the claims against them form part of the same case and controversy.
Excerpt citing CRC and other relevant human rights Looking specifically at Plaintiff’s allegations against Fr. Aguilar, federal courts have recognized rape and sexual abuse as an actionable offense under the ATS as a crime against humanity… see also Rome Statute, art. 7, (g) (specifically listing rape as an example of a crime against humanity); United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child, art. 34 (1989) (“States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”). Torture is also an actionable offense under the ATS… see also Rome Statute, art. 7, (f) (specifically listing torture as an example of a crime against humanity); Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 5 (“No one shall be subjected to torture”). Finally, the prevailing view in the case law is that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment generally constitutes an actionable international law norm under the ATS, and is treated similarly to torture…
Follow up: In February 2014, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay US$13 million to settle 17 clergy abuse lawsuits, including 11 that involve Aguilar. Aguilar fled prosecution in Los Angeles in 1988 and remains a fugitive more than 25 years later. He is still wanted on warrants issued in the US and Mexico. Since 2006, the Archdiocese has paid more than $700 million to settle clergy abuse lawsuits by hundreds of victims. Additionally, in preparation for the trial of the lawsuits involving Aguilar, which had been pushed back due to settlement talks, thousands of pages of confidential files kept on Los Angeles priests accused of abuse were released in 2013 under court order. Those files showed that Mahony, the leader of the Archdiocese when Aguilar allegedly abused children, and other officials maneuvered behind the scenes to shield accused priests and protect the church from a growing scandal. Further information can be found at: http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news5/2014_02_18_Flaccus_Archdiocese_to.htm
Notes: This decision, which allowed a Mexican victim to bring his claim to court in the US, is the first clergy abuse case to be brought under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners access to US courts when remedies are lacking in their home countries. For more information on the issue of child sexual abuse and religious institutions, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN’s campaign ‘End sexual violence in religious institutions’.
CRIN comments: CRIN believes this decision is consistent with the CRC. The CRC requires children to be protected from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse while in the care of any person who has the care of the child ( Article 19). This includes protection from sexual abuse (Articles 19 and 34) and torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment ( Article 37(a)), and covers abuse perpetrated by institutional personnel, including non-governmental personnel such as those at religious institutions (General Comment No. 13). States must ensure that effective remedies are available to children who have been abused, including compensation and access to redress mechanisms and appeal or independent complaint mechanisms.
Citation: CASE NO. CV L0-02902-JST (JEMx)
Link to full judgement: http://www.bishop-accountability.org/orders/2011_02_25_Juan_Doe_I_v_Cardinal_Mahony_et_al_Alien_Tort_Statute.pdf