Sexual abuse (also known as sexual assault, depending on the jurisdiction) is a serious crime, of course. A perpetrator can be indicted by a grand jury and convicted in criminal court. It is also a civil offense, which means that the victim can sue the perpetrator or someone responsible for the perpetrator’s acts (an employer, for example).
It is shocking to find out that the perpetrator of such a heinous crime is a priest – but it happens. Priest abuse survivors are typically (but not always) under 18 years of age, a fact that presents special legal considerations. Although this article specifically addresses sexual abuse allegations against priests employed by the Catholic Church, most of the content could apply just as easily to sexual abuse cases arising in another church or another religion in the United States.
What is Sex Abuse?
Although the precise legal definition of sexual abuse/sexual assault varies from state to state, it generally breaks down into three types of acts:
- The nonconsensual sexual touching of one person by another. This touching is not necessarily limited to penetrative sex – “groping” can be considered a form of sexual abuse.
- Sexual touching that is legally defined as non-consensual, even if the victim subjectively consented to or even initiated the encounter, because the victim was not considered capable of giving meaningful consent. Generally, in this case the victim is below the “age of consent” established in various states, which ranges from 16 to 18 (known colloquially as “statutory rape”). In some cases, it is because the victim suffers from an infirmity such as mental retardation.
- Certain sexual activities that do not involve touching, even verbal, can sometimes constitute sex abuse.
The Statute of Limitations Problem
The statute of limitations sets the deadline by which you must file a lawsuit or abandon your claim. A state may set a limit of, for example, to file a claim for sexual abuse of six years after the act occurred. In some states, however, the statute of limitations clock doesn’t even begin ticking until the victim turns 18.
Even this extension, however, is insufficient for people who finally found the courage to report their abuse decades later after other victims began coming forward. States have struggled with this problem, and in recent years legal reforms have begun to be enacted. Even today, however, the statute of limitations remains a significant legal hurdle for many sexual abuse survivors.
Suing the Church: Vicarious Liability
You might think that you could sue the Catholic Church for sexual abuse committed by its priest. After all, priests take lifetime vows of poverty, but the Catholic Church’s financial resources are nearly unlimited. Even individual dioceses are often flush with cash.
Unfortunately, however, for an employer to be held automatically liable for the wrongful act of its employee, the employee must be acting “within the scope of employment.” Most U.S. courts, when faced with the question, have ruled that a priest is not acting within the scope of employment while he is sexually abusing a parishioner.
Suing the Church: Culpable Behavior by the Church
Even if the church is not considered automatically liable for sexual abuse by one of its priests (again, it depends on which court you are asking), that is not necessarily the end of your claim. If you can uncover misconduct that is attributable to the institutional behavior of the church itself, you can still win a lawsuit against the church. Some of the ways that sexual abuse victims have been able to hold the church liable include:
- Negligent hiring;
- Negligent supervision; and
- Outright coverup and facilitation (keeping the matter a secret and/or transferring the priest to another jurisdiction, for example).
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is it more difficult to win a sexual assault lawsuit, or to secure a criminal conviction for sexual assault?
It is much easier to win a lawsuit than to secure a criminal conviction against a defendant. In a lawsuit, you don’t have to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – you only have to prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the act that led to liability (in this case, sexual abuse)
What will be the likely effect on a civil lawsuit of the fact that the victim was a child and the perpetrator was a priest?
Considering the position of trust between a priest and a child (and the child’s parents), a jury is likely to be utterly outraged and completely sympathetic to the victim of clergy abuse, possibly resulting in a large amount of compensation. If the state in question allows punitive damages, a jury might even award additional punitive damages. Almost all states allow punitive damages, although some of them place a statutory maximum on the amount.
My child was sexually abused by a priest, but he is only 15 years old. Can he file a lawsuit in his own name?
The general answer is no. It doesn’t really matter, however, because the court can appoint an adult such as you or the child’s other parent to file the lawsuit on behalf of your child.
Yes, You CAN Fight Back!
Sometimes lightning strikes, sometimes earthquakes hit, and it’s nobody’s fault – it’s just one of the many tragedies of life. Faced with such uncertainty, perhaps a philosophical attitude towards your own vulnerability, and the vulnerability of your loved ones, is the best path to take once reasonable precautions have been taken.
Priest sexual abuse does NOT fall into this category. Someone is morally and legally responsible for the harm that you or your loved one suffered – and you can and should fight back. Our clergy abuse lawyers are committed to the principle that no religious authority is above the law, and that guilty clergy members must be held liable to survivors of clergy sexual abuse. We have been handling cases of clergy sexual abuse for many years now.
At Edwards Pottinger law firm, our sexual abuse attorneys are not afraid to stand up to the church and to the priests who committed such horrendously revolting acts. If you or your loved one have been sexually assaulted by a priest, contact us immediately at 800-400-1098 for a free consultation. We understand that this issue is deeply personal and may be difficult for you to discuss. You can be assured of this much – our attorney-client relationship means that we are legally bound to keep your secrets.