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Siblings can’t sue Josephites for alleged father cover-up

Siblings who claim to be the offspring of a priest’s affair with a church organist about 60 years ago cannot sue the religious society that hired him and allegedly covered up the fact he was their father, a Maryland appellate court has held.

Carla A. Latty and Adrian Senna alleged that St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart Inc. had a legal obligation to tell them that one of its priests, Francis E. Ryan, had broken his vow of celibacy in the late 1940s and early 1950s with organist Anna Maria Franklin Senna, and that the couple became their parents. They also alleged the Baltimore-based society was negligent in its hiring and supervision of the priest.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the dismissal of their case.

“When we boil down appellants’ argument, they appear to assert that the Josephite Fathers’ negligence ultimately caused them to be born, and that they should be able to collect damages as a result,” Judge Robert A. Zarnoch wrote for the intermediate appellate court. “This smacks of a cause of action for wrongful life,” a claim not recognized under Maryland law, he added.

In any event, the court added, it could not find an employer negligent for failing to supervise a consensual relationship between employees.

“If we were to hold that the society was negligent in this case, it would have the effect of requiring all employers to become entangled in their employees’ relationships and to monitor them,” Zarnoch wrote. “An employer could face potential liability for disclosing an employee’s possible paternity to his alleged children, particularly when the employee denies the allegations.”

Ryan and Anna Senna are deceased.

In their lawsuit, Latty and Adrian Senna also claimed the society forced their mother to give Latty up for adoption and to conceal their father’s identity. Nor did the organization support them financially, the siblings claimed.

The society’s actions and inaction caused Latty and Senna mental anguish, embarrassment and low self-esteem, the now-adult children alleged in a count for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“One also cannot escape the fact that racial overtones motivated this conspiracy, seeking to avoid the even deeper public scandal that would surround a sexual relationship between a white priest, whose charge and duty was ministering to the African-American community, and an African-American woman,” Carla and Adrian’s appellate attorney, John J. Condliffe, wrote in his brief to the Court of Special Appeals.

But the court rejected their argument, saying they failed to show the church intended to cause harm or that the distress they endured was “severe,” as required under Maryland law.

“We certainly knew going in that the legal arguments were much more difficult than the moral arguments,” Condliffe said Tuesday. “There is no doubt in my clients’ minds that the Josephites as an organization were part of and supported decisions that were detrimental to my clients as children.”

Condliffe, of Shub-Condliffe & Condliffe PA in Towson, said he will discuss with his clients the possibility of an appeal to Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals.

Telephone messages left with the society and its appellate counsel Tuesday were not returned. The society was represented by Steven G. Metzger, Brian T. Tucker and Thomas C. Dame of Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore.

Anna Senna raised Adrian, who was born in the 1940s, as a single mother. She gave Latty up for adoption shortly after her birth in 1952.

The siblings claim they learned of their connection and the identity of their biological father via DNA testing within the past few years.

Latty, who lives in New Jersey, and Senna, of British Columbia, filed suit against the society on April 1, 2009, in Baltimore City Circuit Court. They sought $5 million in compensatory and $5 million in punitive damages.

Judge M. Brooke Murdock granted the society’s motion to dismiss the case on Nov. 23, 2009, prompting Latty and Senna to appeal.

Judges Kathryn Grill Graeff and Alan M. Wilner joined Zarnoch’s decision. Wilner, a retired judge, sat by special assignment.

What the court held

Case:

Latty et al.  v. St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart Inc., CSA No. 2487, Sept. Term 2009. Reported. Opinion by Zarnoch, J. Filed April 4, 2011.

Issue:

Did the trial court err in dismissing a lawsuit for negligent hiring and supervision of a priest who allegedly had an affair that resulted in the birth of the plaintiffs, who filed the suit about 60 years later?

Holding:

No; the society owed no legal duty to the children of its allegedly wayward priest.

Counsel:

John J. Condliffe and L. Palmer Foret for appellants; Steven G. Metzger and Brian T. Tucker for appellee.

RecordFax # 11-0404-01 (24 pages).