On Wednesday, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the Second Circuit's decision to throw out ten sexual abuse lawsuits filed by former students of St. Paul's School in Marty. The Native American plaintiffs accused the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, Blue Cloud Abbey, and a whole whack of priests and nuns of committing and countenancing sexual abuse at the Indian school.
Our five justices unanimously rejected the plaintiffs' claims. The legal doctrine of respondeat superior allows folks who've been wronged by an employee of an organization to sue the higher-ups. But that doctrine applies only when the employee is acting to further the interests of the organization, within the scope of employment. The justices say sexual conduct by priests, whose organization requires of them a vow of celibacy, is not within that scope:
...sexual abuse by priests represents such a far deviation from furthering a church or diocese's business, and is such a clear-cut digression from an employee's duty, that it is, as a matter of law, outside the scope of employment.... Simply stated, a priest's sexual relation with a parishioner is a substantial departure from the priest's duties and not within the church's business....
We conclude that the alleged acts of sexual abuse in this case were solely in the perpetrators' own interests and were not in furtherance of the pursuit of any Diocesan business [South Dakota Supreme Court, Bernie v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls..., September 5, 2012].
The state Supreme Court further holds that the plaintiffs failed to provide evidence that the Diocese actually had any control over the school or direct responsibility to protect the students at that school. In other words, even if the former students had been able to move their lawsuit forward and present evidence of sexual abuse, the only people on whom they could have dropped the legal hammer would have been the direct perpetrators and perhaps the direct administrators of St. Paul's School.