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Wednesday, May 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Parochial School Pares 1970s Sex Abuse Claims

TAMPA (CN) - A former teacher must face decades-old sexual abuse allegations, but negligence claims against a school and church are time-barred, a federal judge ruled.

Ronald Weil, a Miami-based attorney who represents John Doe, applauded the court's decision to allow Doe's vicarious liability claim to stand.

"We are very pleased that the federal court has recognized the right of abuse victims who suffer from repressed memory to bring claims against employers, keeping with Florida Supreme Court precedent," Weil said in an interview. "It is the first time the federal court has the opportunity to rule on this issue, and in that sense it is a landmark."

Weil's client attended St. John's Episcopal Parish Day School, in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, in the 1970s. In a federal complaint filed this past September, Doe alleged he suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of two former teachers, Jon Caridad and James Biggers, while he was an altar boy, congregant and student between 1971 and 1975.

Caridad was a priest at St. John's Church and a teacher at the parish school. Biggers, who also worked as a teacher, was the choir master at the church, according to the complaint.

Doe claimed that traumatic amnesia or repressed memory syndrome kept him from remembering the abuse until 2011. He argued that, since his cause of action did not accrue until he recalled the alleged abuse, he could sue the teachers and the church defendants nearly four decades later.

The church, the school and the diocese asked a federal judge in Tampa to dismiss the claims against them as time-barred, however, claiming that the delayed-discovery doctrine did not apply to negligence, fiduciary duty and vicarious liability claims.

This tenet provides that a cause of action does not accrue until the plaintiff knows or reasonably should know of the tortious act that supports the claims.

The Florida Supreme Court concluded in previous cases that delayed discovery applies to childhood sexual-abuse cases with traumatic amnesia, but U.S. District Judge James Whittemore dismissed the negligence and breach of fiduciary duty claims against the church defendants last week.

He noted that the Supreme Court had not determined whether delayed discovery applies to nonintentional tort claims brought against the alleged abusers' employers.

Doe may still pursue a vicarious liability claim against the institutions, Whittemore said, noting that the claim was grounded in the intentional tort allegedly committed by Caridad and Biggers, not in the negligence of the church defendants.

Although employers are generally not liable for sexual assault and battery by employees because those torts fall outside the scope of the alleged abusers' employment, Florida has recognized exceptions where employees relied on the employer-employee relationship to accomplish the torts, the Feb. 12 ruling states.

"For example, the complaint includes allegations that Caridad, a priest and a teacher, and Biggers, a teacher and choir master, abused plaintiff on church and school property, utilized their positions of authority to manipulate and intimidate plaintiff, a minor at the time, had access to and the opportunity to abuse plaintiff because of their official positions and duties, and that Biggers abused plaintiff while giving him piano lessons as part of his education and while on church choir trips," Whittemore wrote. "Therefore, this claim survives defendants' motions to dismiss."

The court declined to address the institutions' argument that they lacked capacity to be sued because they were not corporate entities at the time of the alleged abuse.

Doe can also pursue his abuse and battery claims against Caridad and Biggers, which are intentional tort claims and therefore not barred by the four-year statute of limitations, according to the 15-page order.

Whittemore also refused to challenge Doe's anonymity, ruling that the plaintiff's substantial privacy right outweighs the right to openness in judicial proceedings because the abuse he allegedly suffered as a minor involves details of a sensitive and highly personal nature.

Doe furthermore seeks only to remain anonymous in court filings at this time, according to the ruling.

Whittemore gave the defendants 14 days to answer the remaining claims.

Michael Carney, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents the diocese, declined to comment on the ruling.

Attorneys for Caridad, the school and the church did not respond to requests for comment.

Biggers has not moved to dismiss.

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