On January 8, 2020, Judge Christine Smith, J.S.C. of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Atlantic County, published an opinion in the matter of John Doe 1 v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, et al., ATL-L-950-16, in which the court asserted personal jurisdiction over the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary of Wynnewood, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (the “Archdiocese defendants”). Although not binding, the decision’s publication means that it can be cited to New Jersey courts as persuasive authority.
The plaintiff in this case, identified by the pseudonym John Doe 1 only, alleged that he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a seminarian of St. Charles and eventual priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, from 1972 through 1976. This abuse included several trips into New Jersey, where the abuse was alleged to have also occurred. In December of 2014, plaintiff attended the parish where much of this abuse allegedly occurred, triggering “perceptual distortions,” and subsequently having nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts of abuse. After treating with a therapist, plaintiff acknowledged that he had been sexually abused, leading to the subject suit.
The Archdiocese defendants moved for dismissal, contending that the court lacked personal jurisdiction, that the statute of limitations barred the claim, and that the doctrine of forum non conveniens should apply. They contended that the priest who allegedly assaulted plaintiff acted outside of the scope of his employment, and that any conduct committed by that priest in New Jersey thus did not establish specific personal jurisdiction over the Archdiocese in New Jersey. As to general jurisdiction, defendants contended that the claims of negligence, negligent supervision, and negligent hiring and retention, all concerned the Archdiocese’s alleged conduct in Pennsylvania, not in New Jersey. As such, they argued, they lacked minimum contacts necessary with New Jersey to satisfy constitutional due process.
The plaintiff contended that New Jersey did, in fact, have jurisdiction due to the multiple sexual assaults committed by the Archdiocese’s agent, while in New Jersey. Plaintiff contended that the employer could be liable for the actions of its agent, even if outside of the scope of employment, if the agent was purporting to act on behalf of the principal or was aided in commission of the tort by his position as an agent. Plaintiff had alleged that he had reported the abuse in the 1970s, and was ignored by senior Archdiocese employees and told that he was wrong, while the abuse continued.
The court, in reaching its decision on the issue, noted the Archdiocese’s physical location in Pennsylvania, and noted that its ecclesial authority was circumscribed within its geographic boundaries. However, during the time of the alleged abuse, the Archdiocese owned two properties in Ventnor City, Atlantic County, New Jersey – the very county where the action was venued. These properties were sold in 2012 and 2013, but were not alleged to be connected in any way to the abuse. As to the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, it is located exclusively in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania and has no satellite campuses. The court took judicial notice of the fact that the seminary’s webpage listed the Diocese of Trenton as a partner diocese of the seminary. Ultimately, the court ruled that the ownership of the two Ventnor City properties suggest that the Archdiocese availed itself of the forum of New Jersey, and thus had general jurisdiction.
On the issue of forum non conveniens, the court noted that because plaintiff was not a resident of New Jersey, his choice of forum was entitled to “substantially less deference” than it otherwise would be. Moreover, neither of the defendants availed themselves of service in New Jersey. However, the court noted that the alternate forum, Pennsylvania, would be inadequate as there remains no remedy there for the plaintiff due to its strict statute of limitations,” which would have expired twelve years after plaintiff attained the age of majority. Nevertheless, noting all of the various obstacles that witness location and other factors would have, the court noted that New Jersey was not “a demonstratively inappropriate forum.”
Thus, on the issue of whether a non-resident defendant could be held liable for its former employee’s transgression, occurring within State lines, this particular court held that it could. For more information on the issues implicated here, or on the sexual abuse litigation generally, please contact MKC&I’s Gary Intoccia at (973) 822-1110.
 The decision was rendered by the Court on March 20, 2019, and approved by the Committee on Opinions on January 8, 2020.
 After rendering its decision on the jurisdiction and forum non conveniens issues, the court scheduled a Lopez hearing and left the question of the statute of limitations to another day.