The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee is subject to the jurisdiction of California courts for claims arising from its alleged knowing transfer of a priest with a history of molestation from Milwaukee to Orange County, California, the Court of Appeal has held.
According to the complaint in this case, Fr. Siegfried Widera had been a priest in Wisconsin and was convicted in that state in 1973 of "sexual perversion against a boy." The complaint alleges a pattern of other instances of molestation by Fr. Widera in Wisconsin. With knowledge of the conviction and the claimed pattern of abuse, the Milwaukee Archdiocese arranged for Fr. Widera's transfer to a parish in Orange County, under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange, in 1976, initially under cover of Fr. Widera's leaving Wisconsin on "vacation." He remained under the jurisdiction of the Milwaukee Archdiocese until 1981, when he was excardinated in Milwaukee and incardinated in Orange County. Plaintiff in this case alleges that he was molested by Fr. Widera in Orange County beginning in 1985. He now seeks damages from Fr. Widera and both the Orange and Milwaukee dioceses.
The Milwaukee Archdiocese sought an order dismissing the case against it, on the ground that it lacks sufficient contacts with the State of California to support jurisdiction here. The Court of Appeal disagrees.
In Pavlovich v. Superior Court (2002) 29 Cal.4th 262 (Pavlovich), the California Supreme Court held an out-of-state defendant may be subject to personal jurisdiction in California based upon evidence establishing the defendant engaged in intentional conduct expressly aimed at or targeting California and the defendant knew the intentional conduct would cause harm in this state. In this case, we apply this “effects” test, as expressed in Pavlovich, and conclude the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee (the Milwaukee Archdiocese) is subject to specific personal jurisdiction in California.
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Here, the Milwaukee Archdiocese did not know who [plaintiff] was and could not have expressly aimed its conduct at him. However, we do not believe the effects test required the Milwaukee Archdiocese to know the identities of Widera’s future victims. This is not a situation, as in Pavlovich, where the defendant’s conduct could harm any of a number of industries and businesses, some of which might be centered in California. The nature of the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s conduct—sending a pedophile priest directly into California—meant the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s conduct would harm California residents. In other words, the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s conduct targeted a known group of California residents – boys, specifically, Roman Catholic boys – as a means of getting Widera out of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Such targeting is, we believe, sufficiently individualized to satisfy due process because the Milwaukee Archdiocese could reasonably anticipate being haled into court in California.
The Court of Appeal concludes that jurisdiction in California is constitutionally sound based on the effects of the Archdiocese's actions here and the close relation of the plaintiff's claims to the in-state conduct of the Archdiocese and, with some understatement, that subjecting the Milwaukee Archdiocese to jurisdiction in California comports with notions of "fair play and substantial justice."