The Court of Special Appeals, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, decided a few days ago that a religious order, the Josephite Fathers, owed nothing to the children of one of its priests.

Interestingly, though, at least to me, the First Amendment and its prohibition on interference with matters of religion doesn’t figure in the opinion.  Nope.  The Court raises the possibility, then discards it immediately because it finds that it can rule based on other, non-constitutional, grounds. 

In other words, we are in the realm of torts here, and specifically we are asked whether the Josephite Fathers owed any legal duty to these (now grown) children, who were proven by DNA to be the offspring of Father Francis E. Ryan.  Apparently after Father Ryan impregnated a member of his congregation, the Josephite Order “permitted” the woman to raise one of the children, but forced her to give the other up for adoption.  Neither of the children knew how they had been conceived until they were grown.

And the reason the Order owed no duty to the children?  It wasn’t because the evidence established that it hadn’t forced anyone to do anything.  This case reached the appellate court on a motion to dismiss.  The truth of the facts as pled was assumed, meaning the court accepted as proven that the Church really did abandon these children to their own devices.  Instead, the court concluded, there was no “confidential relationship” between the children, Father Ryan, and the Order sufficient to give rise to a duty.   Accordingly, a priest may father a child on one of his parishioners, and the fact of this may be well-known to the Church; still, unless the mother herself, who’s already been proven malleable enough to sleep with her confessor, complains, the children have no right to any legal relief. 

I’m bothered by this.  I think I would have had an easier time accepting this decision if it had been based on the First Amendment.  But given the Church’s history, coupled with its admitted covering-up of evidence of molestation, I don’t think we should be cutting off the only economic deterrent to this sort of institutional behavior.  Maybe if this case had been tried the facts would have established the innocence of the Josephites.  But it wasn’t.  And I don’t think we should be parsing fiduciary relationships quite so finely.   Not if we can avoid it, anyway. 

I have a sneaking suspicion that this case will make its way to the Court of Appeals, and then, who knows?  Maybe SCOTUS.  But I don’t give it good odds there, either.

In the meantime, I point out with dripping, oozing irony, that the Josephite Fathers are named for a dad.  One who took responsibility even for a child he did not father.