Anti-SLAPP Motion Denied In Suit Against Archdiocese Over Priest Who Sexually Abused Minors

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Sep 30, 2022

Seven adults (Does 1-7) sued the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles and its related entities (the Archdiocese). The plaintiffs alleged they were sexually molested by Father Christopher Cunningham, a priest of the Archdiocese when they were minors. The plaintiffs alleged causes of action for child sexual abuse/sexual battery and negligence.

Prior to Father Cunningham’s ordination in 1989, the Archdiocese received complaints that several of its priests had sexually molested children. The Archdiocese thereafter adopted written policies for the prevention of child molestation and provided copies to all priests. The policy prohibited priests from spending time with minors in their living quarters, taking minors on unchaperoned outings, and tickling, wrestling, kissing or hugging minors.

The plaintiffs all alleged that Father Cunningham sexually molested underage boys since his ordination in 1989 and throughout the 2000s. Additionally, the plaintiffs alleged that rather than taking action in response to suspicions and accusations against Father Cunningham with investigations, supervision, or limitation of access to children, the Archdiocese reassigned Father Cunningham to other parishes where he continued to molest other children. The plaintiffs alleged multiple instances where Father Cunningham violated the Archdiocese policy to prevent child molestation by spending time alone with and hugging and wrestling multiple underage children. The plaintiffs alleged instances where Father Cunningham’s behavior was reported to head priests and the Vicar of Clergy, yet no investigation was conducted into the reports.

Despite all the complaints that Father Cunningham was sexually abusing underage boys, Father Cunningham was promoted to a pastor of his own church in 2001, where he continued to sexually abuse minors. In 2015, another victim (not a plaintiff in this case) sued Father Cunningham for sexual abuse. In 2017, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department began a criminal investigation into complaints against Father Cunningham.

The plaintiffs in this case also alleged the Archdiocese had continuously paid for Father Cunningham’s maintenance and support since 2005 and did not stop its support in response to the 2015 lawsuit or criminal investigation. The Archdiocese paid the legal fees of Father Cunningham’s lawyers and hired an investigator to “dig up dirt” on his victims. The Archdiocese also paid for Father Cunningham to fly to Los Angeles to attend a deposition of his victim in an attempt to intimidate and silence them. In January 2019, Father Cunningham settled the 2015 lawsuit. The plaintiffs alleged that even after this settlement, the Archdiocese continued to pay for Father Cunningham’s legal fees so that his lawyers could lobby the Los Angeles District Attorney against pressing criminal charges.

The Archdiocese filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which allows for the early dismissal of a case that thwarts constitutionally-protected speech. A court examines an anti-SLAPP motion in two parts: 1) whether a defendant has shown the challenged cause of action arises from protected activity; and 2) whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim. Speech made in connection with a public issue falls within protected activity under the anti-SLAPP statute. Statements made in a judicial proceeding, called litigation activity, are also protected conduct for anti-SLAPP purposes.

The Archdiocese argued that the allegations of its support of Father Cunningham in the 2015 lawsuit and the sheriff’s criminal investigation were protected litigation activity. The Archdiocese also argued that its decision not to speak about the allegations against Father Cunningham to the parish communities, its failure to communicate the Archdiocese’s policy for the prevention of molestation to non-priest staff and members of the community, and its failure to educate, train, and warn plaintiffs about sexual abuse, and its failure to inform staff about their duties to report sexual abuse under the law, were all protected activity.

The case made its way to the California Supreme Court, which remanded the case with directions to the Court of Appeal to reconsider its decision in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bonni v. St. Joseph Health System (2021) 11 Cal.5th 995. In Bonni, the California Supreme Court held that courts must analyze each individual cause of action to determine whether the challenged claims arise from protected activity in analyzing an anti-SLAPP motion.

The Court of Appeal denied the Archdiocese’s anti-SLAPP motion. Under the plaintiffs’ first cause of action of sexual abuse/sexual battery, the plaintiffs alleged that the Archdiocese should be liable for Father Cunningham’s molestation of the plaintiffs due to its authorization and ratification of his conduct. The Court of Appeal rejected the Archdiocese’s argument that the allegations as they pertained to the plaintiffs’ sexual abuse/sexual battery cause of action were “litigation activity” because of the Archdiocese’s alleged financial and legal support of Father Cunningham. Rather, in addition to the Archdiocese’s financial and legal support, the plaintiffs allege that the Archdiocese failed to investigate and supervise Father Cunningham and instead transferred him to different parishes, which was not litigation activity.

The Court found that the Archdiocese similarly attempted to narrowly construe the allegations supporting the plaintiffs’ negligence cause of action. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Archdiocese’s argument that the right to free speech includes the right not to speak. However, the Court held that the Archdiocese’s failure to inform the parish community about Father Cunningham’s sexual abuse was not a protected activity because the conduct was not in furtherance of the right of free speech. Therefore, the Archdiocese’s failure to warn allegations are additional allegations of negligent conduct by the Archdiocese and not subject to attack by an anti-SLAPP motion.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal denied the Archdiocese’s anti-SLAPP motion.

Ratcliff v. Roman Cath. Archbishop of Los Angeles (2022) 79 Cal. App. 5th 982.


Anti-SLAPP motions are a powerful tool for the early dismissal of lawsuits involving issues of protected speech. Here, the Court of Appeal disagreed that the Archdiocese’s purported failure to speak regarding the suspected abuse of minors by the priest constituted conduct in furtherance of the Archdiocese’s right to free speech. The plaintiff’s complaint identified specific instances where the Archdiocese failed to investigate, discipline, or supervise the priest, and even concealed evidence of the sexual abuse of children. Therefore, the Archdiocese’s conduct was not protected activity for anti-SLAPP purposes.

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