Clergy Sex Abuse | Legal Advice for Victims

Church congregants trust their church’s clergy to provide religious and spiritual guidance. Unfortunately, some clergy members exploit churchgoers’ trust by committing psychological and sexual abuse. The Roman Catholic Church has made headlines over the years for allegations of sex abuse along with failure to investigate the survivors’ claims, report instances of abuse to the authorities, and generally, keep its church members safe.

Survivors of clergy sex abuse have the right to file a civil lawsuit to claim compensation for the profound mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual damage endured as a result of the abuse. If you are a survivor of sex abuse at the hands of a clergy member, contact a clergy sex abuse lawyer today for guidance on the best way forward.

What is Clergy Sex Abuse?

Clergy sex abuse occurs when an individual in a ministerial role engages in sexual contact, including child sex abuse, molestation, child pornography, sexual assault, and rape, against a church member, a student, or an employee. Although The Roman Catholic Church has received the most scrutiny regarding clergy sex abuse, this type of abuse can transpire within any institution professing religious and/or spiritual guidance.

It is important to note that children are especially susceptible due to their impressionable age. Minors who experience abuse by a clergy member can take many years to understand and process the full extent of their trauma and seek help to recover from the abuse.

How Do Priests Groom Sex Abuse Survivors?

Priests or clergy members often initiate the abuse by grooming the survivor in order to establish trust and develop a bond. Grooming is a manipulation tactic that abusers use to build a relationship with their target individuals who feel compelled to participate in the abuse. Grooming is a deliberate, step-by-step process that includes:

  • Identifying potential victims: Many priests have strong bonds with parishioners. Abusive clergy members use these relationships to seek out people, such as vulnerable youth
  • Gaining the targeted parishioner’s and their family’s trust: The abuser tries to gain the individual’s trust in a number of different ways, including gifts, compliments, or special attention. The perpetrator seeks to eventually fill a void or become a role model for the target parishioner
  • Isolating the individual: Next, the abuser often exploits the target individual’s and/or their family’s trust by requesting time alone outside of regular church hours. This is done to gain access to the individual, sometimes under the pretense of spiritual guidance or counseling
  • Increased physical/sexual contact: The abuser’s objective is to lower the individual’s inhibitions and even desensitize them to touch and other forms of physical contact. This sexual contact typically escalates over time
  • Maintaining control: After the occurrence of sexual abuse, the perpetrator often uses tactics such as manipulation and threats in order to maintain control over the individual, as well as protect their identity and wrongdoings from being exposed

The Catholic Church & Sex Abuse

Reports of Catholic priest sex abuse have been documented in nearly every state and in many other countries. Although clergy sex abuse within The Roman Catholic Church has been occurring for centuries, a 2002 Boston Globe report brought substantial media attention to the issue. After a month-long investigation, the report revealed decades of sex abuse cases in Boston Catholic churches as well as the immense efforts taken to cover up the abuse. This led to a national outcry and spurred further investigations that unmasked tens of thousands of priest sex abuse reports in archdioceses across the U.S.

These investigations revealed that in several cases church leaders knew about the clergy sex abuse taking place and either ignored it or paid large sums of money to cover it up. A CNN report showed that during a one-year time period between June 2017 and June 2018, the U.S. Catholic Church spent over $300 million on costs related to clergy sex abuse, including $200 million in civil lawsuit settlements.

What Should I Do if I am a Survivor of Clergy Sex Abuse?

If you are a survivor of Clergy or Catholic priest sex abuse, you should know that you are not alone and you have legal options available to you to pursue justice. You should immediately report the abuse to a law enforcement agency as well as to the archdiocese where the abuse had occurred.

In most cases, survivors of sexual abuse have the right to file a clergy sex abuse lawsuit to recover compensation for the trauma endured. This is irrespective of whether or not they decide to pursue a criminal case as well. A clergy sex abuse lawyer will be able to guide you through the legal process and answer any questions you may have.

Is It Ever Ok to Have Sexual Contact with a Religious Leader?

According to the FaithTrust Institute, a global organization working to end sexual and domestic violence, clergy members can pursue relationships with of-age individuals outside of their congregation as long as manipulation and coercion are completely absent from the relationship. If a clergy member becomes interested in a romantic relationship with a congregant, they should remove themself from their ministerial role prior to pursuing a relationship. However, individuals in The Roman Catholic Church must take a vow of celibacy before becoming a priest.

Will Speak Out About the Abuse Hurt My Church?

Many survivors of clergy sex abuse are apprehensive about reporting the abuse out of misplaced fear, embarrassment, guilt, or shame. It is understandable for survivors to undergo post-traumatic reactions and even question their perception of reality after instances of psychological and sexual manipulation.

However, many states legally obligate clergy members to report suspected sex abuse and by failing to do so, they may be putting their congregation at risk. In any case, it is important for you to report the sex crimes committed against you, so you can at least help prevent others from experiencing what you went through.

When Should I Contact a Clergy Sex Abuse Lawyer?

If you have experienced clergy sex abuse, you should consider speaking with a licensed mental health professional in order to process the trauma. Once you are in a better frame of mind to be able to recount your experience, you may consult with a priest sex abuse lawyer to help you obtain financial compensation. While the amount of compensation secured in a successful case cannot change or minimize the impact of your trauma, it can allow you to access the care and support you need to begin healing.

Catholic Church Sex Abuse Settlements: Civil Justice for Survivors

According to the non-profit organization Bishop Accountability, the U.S. Catholic Church has paid over $3 billion in compensation to survivors of clergy sex abuse. Notable Catholic Church sex abuse settlements include:

  • California: In 2007, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $660 million, one of the largest settlements by the Catholic Church, to over 500 clergy sex abuse claimants. In this case, each survivor was awarded approximately $1.3 million in damages
  • New Jersey: In April 2022, the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, agreed to pay $87.5 million to over 300 survivors of Catholic priest sex abuse. Each survivor received roughly $290,000 in the recovery of damages
  • New Mexico: The Archdiocese of Santa Fe agreed to pay over $121 million in settlements to over 300 New Mexico priest sex abuse survivors in May 2022

The statute of limitations, or the time you have to file a civil sex abuse lawsuit in state court, differs from state to state. However, President Biden recently enacted the Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act of 2022 to remove the statutory limitations on when one may file a federal civil lawsuit for child sexual abuse. The Act is not retroactive, and therefore does not apply in cases where the statute of limitations for filing a suit has already passed.

Resources for Sex Abuse Victims

  • RAINN: The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) is the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and provides sex abuse survivors with various resources, such as an online chat hotline
  • SNAP: The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is the largest and oldest support group for survivors of clergy sex abuse
  • Darkness to Light: Darkness to Light is a child sexual abuse prevention organization that offers resources to both child survivors of sex abuse as well as their parents

Talk to a Compassionate Clergy Sex Abuse Lawyer

Survivors of clergy sex abuse have the right to pursue justice for the crimes committed against them. By filing a civil lawsuit against an abuser and a third party that may have facilitated the crime, like The Roman Catholic Church, survivors can seek compensation to help rebuild their lives after the trauma. If you or someone you know is a survivor of Catholic church sex abuse, contact a clergy sex abuse law firm today to set up a free legal consultation.

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How Filing a Civil Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Can Help Survivors Obtain Justice

Sexual abuse is defined as any unwanted sexual activity and can result in a lifetime of trauma, with conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety lingering long after the abuse occurred. By filing a civil sexual abuse lawsuit, survivors may be able to obtain justice and closure by holding their abuser and any potentially negligent third parties accountable.

While a lawsuit cannot change what happened or eliminate the trauma an individual endured, it can hold the responsible party or parties responsible and provide financial compensation. Because sex abuse is both a state crime and a civil tort, victims of sex abuse have the option to seek justice through a criminal sex abuse lawsuit, a civil sex abuse lawsuit, or both. Contact a sex abuse lawyer to learn more about your options.

What is Considered Sexual Abuse?

According to the American Psychology Association, sexual abuse is defined as any unwanted sexual contact involving the use of force by the perpetrator. Examples of sexual abuse include:

  • Rape or attempted rape
  • Sexual abuse of a minor
  • Groping or unwanted sexual touching
  • Sexual battery
  • Indecent exposure
  • Sexual harassment

What is the Difference Between a Criminal and Civil Sex Abuse Lawsuit?

One of the biggest differences between the two forms of legal recourse is the potential outcomes. In a criminal case, the charges are brought by the state and not the victim. If a criminal case against a sexual abuser results in a guilty verdict, it may result in a prison sentence. In civil cases, the case is brought by the victim against the predator or an organization or business that may have played a role in the abuse. If successful, a lawsuit will result in financial compensation.

In a criminal case, the victim is considered a witness and is often asked to testify, which means recounting their traumatic experience in front of a jury. The jury must decide if the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” meaning the evidence must show that the defendant committed the crime without a doubt. Additionally, the victim has no say in the outcome or sentence the defendant receives. In a civil case, the victim has more control over proceedings and the final outcome.

Why Are the Benefits of Filing a Civil Sex Abuse Lawsuit?

In general, civil sex abuse lawsuits center more around the survivor’s needs instead of the perpetrator’s punishment. The benefits of filing a civil sex abuse lawsuit include:

  • More control over the case: In most cases, the survivor has no say in the sentencing the defendant receives. In a civil case, they have more authority over the proceedings of the case and will make the decision regarding settling the case or going to trial as well as actively participate in the terms of the settlement.
  • Financial compensation: A civil sex abuse lawsuit allows survivors to seek compensation for damages incurred as a result of the abuse, including loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, therapy or counseling costs, and more.
  • The burden of proof: In civil sex abuse lawsuits, the abuser must only be found “more likely than not” liable, instead of “beyond reasonable doubt” in criminal cases.
  • Third-party liability: In a civil case, the survivor has the ability to bring a case against the perpetrator as well as against any other third party who may have contributed to the abuse in some way.

Filing a Sex Abuse Lawsuit Against a Third Party

A third party may refer to a school, a youth organization, a religious institution, a corporation, or a business (a hotel, spa, cruise line, etc.) whose negligence contributed to the sexual abuse that took place. In a civil sex assault lawsuit, a third party may be found liable for abuse through many different actions or inactions, including:

  • Inadequate hiring practices
  • Lack of training or supervision
  • Failure to conduct background checks
  • Failure to provide adequate security
  • Failure to report or investigate instances of abuse
  • Covering up instances or accusations of abuse

In a criminal case sex abuse case, the state only prosecutes those directly involved in the crime that took place. A criminal case does not prosecute the institutions or individuals that may have made it easier for the abuse to take place, like a school covering up allegations of a staff member’s abuse. A civil sex abuse lawsuit can hold the organizations whose negligence may have opened the doors for abuse to happen responsible and prevent it from happening again in the future.

Do I Need a Civil Sexual Abuse Lawyer?

When considering filing a sexual abuse lawsuit, it is advisable to consult with an experienced sexual abuse lawyer who can guide you through the legal process. Things to keep in mind when choosing a sex abuse attorney include:

  • Experience: Ensure the law firm you hire has ample experience handling sex abuse lawsuits by asking about the number of similar cases its attorneys have handled and what the final outcomes were.
  • Expertise: It may be preferable to choose a law firm that specializes in sex abuse law as opposed to one that handles a large number of other types of cases. A law firm with ample experience and knowledge of sex abuse law will understand how to navigate the difficult nature of these types of cases.

Additionally, a qualified sex abuse lawyer should be empathetic and aggressive in handling sex abuse lawsuits. A capable sex abuse law firm will be able to guide you through the legal process, protect your rights, and advocate on your behalf to secure the maximum potential financial compensation for the abuse that occurred. Contact a sex abuse lawyer today to learn more.

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