A Busy Day Yesterday at the Appellate Division: Three Published Opinions

It is rare for the Appellate Division to issue three published opinions on one day. That occurred yesterday. Two of the cases entailed similar legal issues and were decided by the same panel, with Judge Gilson authoring the opinions. The third was a ruling in a criminal appeal. Judge Chase wrote that opinion.

D.T. v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2023); JA/GG Doe 70 v. Diocese of Metuchen, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2023). In each of these cases, the plaintiff alleged that a Catholic priest had sexually abused him when he was a minor. In both cases, the defendant archdiocese moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

In JA/GG, the movant was the diocese of Richmond, Virginia. Plaintiff alleged that Father John Butler had abused him from approximately 1995-98, when plaintiff was approximately nine to twelve years old. in As Judge Gilson summarized it, “the record established that (1 ) Butler had been incardinated [an ecclesiastical term indicating a priest’s acceptance into and subject to the authority of the bishop of a particular diocese] to Richmond at the time of his ordination in 1957, and that Butler remained a priest incardinated to Richmond until 2002; (2) in the 1960s, Richmond had been aware of Butler’s sexual propensities towards children; (3) in 1970, Richmond encouraged and allowed Butler to go to New Jersey to serve as a priest; and (4) Richmond maintained a significant degree of control over Butler while he served in New Jersey.” The Law Division found that those facts sufficed to establish personal jurisdiction over Richmond. The Appellate Division affirmed because “the trial court’s findings of jurisdictional fact are supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record,” and because published cases from other jurisdictions that Richmond cited were not persuasive in its favor.

In D.T., where plaintiff alleged that Michael McCarthy, a former priest, abused him in 1971, the result went the other way. Plaintiff relied on evidence that the diocese had in the past owned property in New Jersey, but there was no connection between those properties and the alleged abuse. The alleged abuser had acted at a private home in Margate that he owned. Plaintiff’s other contention was that the abuser was an agent of the diocese. That did not avail. “McCarthy was not acting within the scope of his responsibilities as a priest when he sexually assaulted plaintiff. In addition, in 1971, the Archdiocese had no knowledge of prior sexual assaults by McCarthy, and, therefore, at least at that time, would have had no reason to restrict or strip him of his priestly duties. Further, there is no evidence that the Archdiocese delegated to McCarthy the authority to control plaintiff by counseling and ministering to plaintiff in his private home in New Jersey. Instead, the facts establish that plaintiff’s mother gave McCarthy permission to take plaintiff to the home in Margate.”

State v. Martinez-Mejia, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2023). Judge Chase concisely summarized the issue and the ruling in this appeal at the start of his opinion. “The main issue in this criminal appeal is whether the Luring, Enticing Child by Various Means statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-6(a), requires the State to prove a defendant lured or enticed a ‘child,’ in this case an undercover law enforcement officer posing as a fourteen-year-old girl, into traveling or accompanying the defendant to some location other than the victim’s own home.

We reject defendant Jose Y. Martinez-Mejia’s contention that because he enticed the ‘child’ to meet him alone, and defendant traveled to the ‘child’s’ home, a judgment of acquittal should have been entered. By its plain language, the statute forbids an adult from ‘luring or enticing a child to meet or appear at any other place.’ We hold that the child’s home can be the ‘other place.’ Here, that location is a place ‘other’ than where the defendant was when he communicated with the child.” Though the panel found it unnecessary to look at legislative history, that history supported the result, which was to affirm defendant’s conviction.