Clergy Sexual Abuse: An Ongoing Problem

Sexual Assault Lawyer Atlanta, GA

A recent grand jury report from Pennsylvania documents more than 1,000 victims of sexual abuse committed by more than 300 Catholic priests. While the problem of sexual abuse by clergy members extends beyond the Catholic church and is not confined to Pennsylvania, the report sheds light on a pattern of victimization that can scar children for the rest of their lives.

The problem of sexual abuse by clergy first received widespread publicity in the 1980s, when allegations of sexual abuse were leveled against a priest in Louisiana. The issue made headlines again in 2002 when a Boston Globe investigation led to the criminal prosecution of five priests for sex crimes. The investigation triggered a national discussion that encouraged more victims to come forward across the United States.

After years of covering up the problem, the Church purported to take steps to protect children from victimizers. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania report suggests that sexual abuse by clergy members is an ongoing problem.

Grand Jury Investigation

The Pennsylvania grand jury determined that priests abused both boys and girls, including five sisters within the same family. One priest admitted that he assaulted at least a dozen boys.

The problem of sexual abuse is compounded by the efforts made by the Church to cover up the problem. While the Church has taken some laudable steps to take responsibility for predatory priests, the Pennsylvania Attorney General described the pattern as “abuse, deny and cover up.” In fact, the report condemns Church officials for promoting priests, bishops, and cardinals who were aware of abuse but chose to protect the abuser rather than reporting unlawful conduct to the police.

For example, the report shines a spotlight on Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. The report notes that Wuerl, as a bishop, routinely responded to reports of sexual abuse by transferring priests to a different state. He did not alert church officials in the states to which transfers were made that they would be working with a priest who had been accused of sexual abuse.

The co-director of an organization that researches and documents reports of sexual abuse by clergy members blames an “entrenched infrastructure of secrecy in the Catholic Church that continues to reward concealment rather than disclosure.” As did the Boston Globe investigation in 2002, the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation is likely to encourage more victims across the country to speak about their experiences as sexual abuse survivors.

Church Liability for Clergy Abuse

Holding clergy and their churches accountable for sexual abuse requires a careful analysis of the facts and law. When victims wait too long to sue, they may be barred by a statute of limitations. Fortunately, when minors are the victims, many states extend the time for bringing a lawsuit until after they reach adulthood.

Clergy members can often be sued for committing a sexual battery and/or for intentional infliction of emotional distress when they sexually assault a child. Other legal theories (like negligent counseling) might also be available, depending on the facts.

However, clergy members may not have the resources available to pay a judgment, and insurance typically does not cover intentional acts. Holding the church responsible as the clergy member’s employer is often the key to assuring that full compensation is paid if the church might refuse to pay a judgment against the clergy member.

Legal strategies that have been successful in proving the liability of churches as the employers of predatory clergy members include:

  • Negligent hiring of a clergy member without determining whether the clergy member has committed abusive acts in the past.
  • Negligent supervision or retention of a clergy member, particularly when the church fails to investigate claims of abuse or transfers the clergy member to a different parish rather than terminating the clergy member’s employment.
  • Breach of fiduciary duty to church members (in other words, failing to uphold the duty to act in the best interest of church members who placed their trust in the church), particularly when the victims have been placed under the clergy member’s care as students or altar boys
  • Breach of mandatory child abuse reporting laws
  • Conspiracy to enable or conceal child abuse (usually by concealing the facts from parents and authorities)

Sexual assault victims should always receive compensation for their physical and emotional injuries, particularly when they placed their trust in a religious institution that placed its own interests ahead of the interests of church members. Obtaining prompt legal advice from a sexual assault lawyer Atlanta, GA recommends is the first step that victims should take when they seek justice after being sexually victimized by a clergy member. Call an attorney from Butler Law Firm Personal Injury Attorneys today.