In a case in which Leto Copeley is co-counsel, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled unanimously that the First Amendment does not shield a church from claims for failure to properly supervise its clergy. Therefore, the firm’s lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh can proceed to the next phase, which is discovery.
The lawsuit alleges that Rev. Edgar Sepulveda perpetrated sex acts against a 16-year-old boy who was involved in youth activities at Sepulveda’s parish. According to the plaintiff, the priest, who was also sued, used his stature with the church to groom the boy for sexual activity and to gain an invitation to spend the night with the plaintiff’s family, giving him an additional opportunity to abuse the plaintiff.
Lawyers for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh attempted to stop the lawsuit on grounds that examining the way a church supervises its clergy would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. But the Court held that a negligent supervision claim is different from a claim for negligent hiring or retention, which would require examining church doctrine. A negligent supervision claim, the Court stated, is governed by neutral principles of law. The question whether a priest’s employer knew that he posed a risk to children has nothing to do with religion.
Sepulveda was arrested in 2010 and charged with second-degree sexual offense and sexual battery. He has denied the accusations. The case was dropped two years later. A spokesman for the Church stated that church officials reported the abuse to law enforcement in 2009 after the boy’s family contacted the diocese.
In the next phase of the case, each side will be seeking information from the other about what happened. Plaintiffs in these cases typically ask for the results of internal investigations, and seek records that would show that church officials had knowledge that Sepulveda could pose a threat to children Sepulveda’s accuser is now 22-years-old. He is seeking financial compensation from the church. The lead counsel on the case is Gregg Meyers of Jeff Anderson and Associates. North Carolina Lawyers Weekly published an article discussing the legal significance of the case.