The sex abuse charges now roiling the Catholic Church are a serious matter. But this tweet reminded me of one of my favorite cases, which is not very serious:
“The only valid reason for using RICO against the Vatican or any entity of the Catholic church, in the context of child sexual abuse, is to gain publicity or access to more clients,” said Notre Dame law prof G. Robert Blakey, the nation’s foremost expert on racketeering law. 2002— Joanna Nuval (@janeway529) August 28, 2018
In 1968, William Sheffield visited the ancient Hospice du Grand St. Bernard in Switzerland, a monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, a Roman Catholic religious order of priests. While in Switzerland, Sheffield contracted with the cleric in charge, Father Bernard Cretton, to buy a St. Bernard dog for $175 plus the $125 freight to ship the dog to Sheffield’s home in California. Sheffield was to pay the price in $20 installments and Cretton agreed to ship the dog upon receipt of the first $20.
Sheffield made three $20 payments, but the monastery refused either to ship a dog or to refund his money. Sheffield then sued in California state court for the price of his substitute dog ($200) and his non-refunded $60. In the suit, he named Cretton, the Canons Regular, the Vatican, the Pope, and the local archdiocese (in the person of then-presiding Archbishop of San Francisco).
Although Sheffield apparently was able to serve process on and obtain personal jurisdiction with respect to the Archbishop of San Francisco, he faced significant obstacles in doing so with respect to both the Pope and the monastic defendants. In an attempt to circumvent those problems, Sheffield invoked the alter ego doctrine:
The complaint alleges that defendants Archbishop and the Canons Regular of St. Augustine were controlled and dominated by defendants Roman Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome and the Holy See, that there exists a “unity of interest and ownership between all and each of the defendants,” that the Archbishop and the Canons Regular were a “mere shell and naked framework which defendants Roman Catholic Church, The Bishop of Rome, and The Holy See, have used and do now use as a mere conduit for the conduit of their ideas, business, property, and affairs,” and that all defendants are “alter egos” of each other.
The court rejected Sheffield’s argument, holding that the “uncontroverted” evidence that “the Archbishop had no dealings with the Canons Regular negates any possibility that the Archbishop so controlled and dominated that organization so as to be liable for its actions under the ‘alter ego’ doctrine.”