Appeals court affirms dismissal of lawsuit against Roman Catholic order

Brother and sister claimed priest who is now dead was their father

April 05, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

A state appeals court has refused to revive a lawsuit against a Roman Catholic order based in Baltimore by two siblings who sued the order, claiming that one of its priests was their father.

Carla A. Latty of New Jersey and her brother, Adrian Senna of British Columbia, sued the Saint Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart and others for $10 million in 2009. They contend that the order should be held responsible for failing to end a longtime relationship that began in the 1940s in Montgomery, Ala., between the Rev. Francis E. Ryan and their mother, Anna Maria "Ria" Senna, both of whom are now deceased.

The initial civil suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City sought compensatory and punitive damages, and alleged negligence in the church's hiring and supervision of Ryan, intentional infliction of emotional distress and fiduciary fraud.

Representatives of the order could not be reached Tuesday. The society is headquartered in Baltimore, but the ruling notes that it "would not appear" that events claimed by the siblings — the alleged relationship between Ria Senna and Ryan — occurred in Maryland.

The ruling by the Court of Special Appeals agrees with a Baltimore City judge's dismissal of the lawsuit for several reasons. The judges said because civil courts cannot get entangled in religious doctrine, they could not determine whether the church is liable for enforcing a vow of celibacy. Looking at the society as a secular employer, the judges found that the society did not have a legal obligation to Latty and Senna.

That ends the case, unless Latty and Senna ask the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to hear it.

Latty said she had not read the opinion, which was issued Monday.

"I'm going to have to speak with my attorney about it," Latty said Tuesday. She said she has not been deterred in her belief that she and her brother are Ryan's children.

"I believe he is my father. I have good reason to believe that," she said.

A DNA sample provided by Ryan's nephew confirmed the genetic link in 2007. An article in The Boston Globe quoted a half-brother of Latty's saying that the $500 test was paid for by the Josephite order.

The siblings say that the Josephites knew of the romance, covered it up and reassigned Ryan to Washington and New Orleans. Latty has previously said that the romance continued despite Ryan's moves, and that her biological mother settled in Boston, where Ryan had roots.

The lawsuit maintained that the Josephites forced Ria Senna to give up her daughter, born in 1952, for adoption, but she raised her son, who was seven years older, largely by herself. Latty has said that it was a search for her biological parents when she was 54 that led her to find her brother and learn the identity of her father.

The Archdiocese and Archbishop of Baltimore were dismissed from the case, and Ryan's estate was not served with legal papers. Ryan had no affiliation with the archdiocese, according to its spokesman.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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