O’Brien v. Nowicki (Appeal No. 12-2025)

Posted by on Jun 11, 2012 in All, Dennis O' Brien, Douglas Nowicki | No Comments

On Friday, June 8, a brief (attached) was filed in the case of O’Brien v. Nowicki (Appeal No. 12-2025) in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. The case involves a clergy abuse response program operated by Saint Vincent Archabbey of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, formally known as The Benedictine Society, a corporation. The underlying action alleges that the Archabbey harmed Mr. O’Brien by refusing to allow him to be heard by the allegation review board, refusing to tell him the results of the investigation after assuring him that they would, and providing a therapist that put their interests ahead of his.

The District Court in Pittsburgh dismissed the case, stating that “A federal court is not an appropriate forum for which to lobby for policy and procedural changes within a religious organization.” The brief argues that a federal court is a proper forum for seeking relief when a religious organization harms someone, when that relief will not affect the free exercise of religion.

The following are excerpts from the brief. Prior pleadings and related documents can be found at www.sharejerusalem.com/files. For additional information, contact dennisobrien@sharejerusalem.com.

This case involves the essential role of the civil government when protecting the people from harm by a religious organization, and the people deserve clear and considered direction from the Court. . . .

In addition to the facts as plead, the Court must also accept those inferences most favorable to the plaintiff in considering a motion to dismiss. In this case, that inference is not pretty. The Benedictine Society, as Saint Vincent Archabbey, undertook a program to respond to allegations of sexual abuse whose primary purpose was to protect the reputation of the Archabbey and its members, even if that meant causing further harm to the person alleging abuse. They did this by refusing access to the Allegation Review Board; by refusing to disclose the results of their investigation, even after assuring the person alleging abuse that they would; and by providing a therapist who would put their interests ahead of her patient’s. They were aware of the likelihood that their actions would cause additional harm, but deliberately disregarded it. They maliciously manipulated the Appellant, convincing him through false promises to open up and become even more vulnerable, and then harmed him grievously. . . .

From the facts alleged in the Complaint, the inference most advantageous to Appellant is that the Appellees needed to pre-approve a therapist so they could control the therapy; that the therapist, at crucial moments, was more likely to blame any harm on Appellant’s psychological condition rather than on any of Appellees’ acts; and that such betrayal would cause severe and long-lasting harm.

Appellant understands that this is an allegation and inference of the most outrageous behavior, the trading of someone’s physical, mental, and emotional health for the reputation of an institution and its leaders. No one wants to believe that those who are entrusted with morality would do such things. But such hesitance is not enough to support dismissal. In ruling on a motion to dismiss, it is an abuse of discretion not to accept those inferences that are most favorable to the plaintiff. This Court must set aside any personal feelings about this church, or any church, and apply the law fairly and objectively to the Appellees: a corporation, its officer, and its employee. . . .

Appellees are a domestic corporation, an officer, and an employee, who are responsible for the consequences of their actions just like everyone else. To exempt them from liability for their actions as alleged would mark the end of the rule of law. Conversely, a finding of liability would extend the protection of the law to the very people, the injured and vulnerable, who are most in need of such protection. It would in no way interfere with Appellees’ free exercise of their religion.

There was a time in history when governments deferred to ecclesiastical courts, including the legal traditions that evolved into our own. Indeed, there are still countries in the world where civil law and religious law are one. But the United States has rejected that model of jurisprudence since its founding. Though we have sometimes struggled with the details, we have found a way to preserve the essentials of religious freedom while still enforcing civil responsibility.

This case again requires the Court to examine that relationship. The Appellees, and the Report and Recommendation, raise the fear that if the civil government interferes in a case of alleged wrongdoing by a religious organization, it will be party to the destruction of that organization.

Such an assertion is an insult, not only to civil government, but to religion. Taking responsibility for wrongful acts will not destroy a religion; it will only help it find fulfillment. Those who worry about a church’s standing in the community should consider how that standing would be raised if it took responsibility and treated those alleging abuse with the same respect that the rest of our society affords to victims of wrongdoing. And those who worry about the legitimate functions of civil government should consider what would happen if it forfeited its responsibility to protect its citizens. . . .

If the Court has any doubt as to whether the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have an interest in holding institutions and individuals accountable for how they deal with allegations of abuse, it should take judicial notice of similar cases currently proceeding in state courts in Philadelphia and State College.

Appellant’s Brief (PDF)… Here

Attachements (PDF)… Here

Father Rachett (PDF)… Here