Statistics cannot even do justice to describe the scope of the sexual abuse that has plagued the Catholic Church for decades. Since the Boston Globe began its groundbreaking reporting on the topic in 2002 which became the basis for the movie Spotlight, much attention has now been devoted to not only the abuse but the fact that very high levels of the Church looked the other way while it was occurring.
Now, the Church is being called to account legally for its gross errors in failing to deal with this epidemic as it was happening. States are making it easier to sue the Catholic Church, and it is not being inundated with lawsuits.
If you or a loved one has suffered abuse at the hands of a priest or anyone else associated with the Church, you may be entitled to legal compensation.
However, given the sheer number of lawsuits that are going to be filed, it is best to file yours quickly due to the precarious financial situation of the Church. The sexual attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC can help you and your family get justice for the harm that was perpetrated by a member of the Catholic Church.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
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- Washington D.C.
- West Virginia
Sexual Abuse is Pervasive in the Catholic Church
After some of the initial reports of sex abuse began to emerge, the Catholic Church commissioned a study to learn the scope of the problem. The John Jay Report found that there were over 11,000 allegations that were made against over 4,000 priests.
The results of the Jay Report merely scratched the surface of the potential instances of abuse out there. In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued its own report that just studied Pennsylvania. It found that there were over 1,000 identifiable abuse victims in the state, and there were likely to be thousands of additional victims.
There is no current study that gives an indication of the estimate of victims so we hesitate to even speculate. What we know is that likely tens of thousands of people, and possibly more, experienced sexual abuse as children at the hands of someone associated with the Church and may now have legal recourse against the Church.
Legal Theories Under Which the Catholic Church Can Be Liable for Abuse
The reason why these victims may now seek compensation from the Catholic Church is that priests operate as representatives of the Church in their duties. There are numerous legal theories under which a victim can recover from the Catholic Church. Here are a few that could be used in a sex abuse lawsuit:
- An employee may be liable for the misdeeds of an employee because the employer is acting as an agent of the employer.
- The Catholic Church may have been negligent in their hiring and placement of priests by failing to perform the proper background checks and giving an adequate amount of scrutiny to those who were around children.
- The Catholic Church failed to act on credible allegations against specific priests, either leaving them in their roles or moving them to another diocese to make the problem go away in the short-term. If an employer knew or could have known of the possibility of wrongdoing but did not investigate, they can be held legally responsible.
There have been numerous findings and even indictments that have detailed the scope of the Church’s failure to do anything about this problem despite years of evidence piling up and new accusations being made. The indictments even reach a high level of the Church as many senior priests are alleged to have actively participated in a coverup.
For example, Monsignor William Lynn was indicted and convicted for taking steps to conceal the crimes of priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He was sentenced to three to six years in prison, although the state later ordered a retrial after an evidentiary issue.
Commonly Asked Questions About Catholic Church Sex Abuse Lawsuits
If you have been the victim of sex abuse at the hands of anyone associated with the Catholic Church, you likely have many questions about your legal rights in these cases and how you would be able to receive financial compensation in these cases. Here are the answers to some commonly asked questions about sex abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church addressed by our lawyers:
Q. I experienced abuse many years ago. Can I still sue even if I was abused decades earlier by a priest?
A. Yes, especially since states have now begun to change their laws.
As the reports of sexual abuse began to pour in after increased media attention, states began to realize that their current laws restricted the rights of sex abuse survivors. What was unjust was that a victim would have had to file a lawsuit within a short period of time after the abuse or even in a limited amount of time as an adult. However, many people either have blocked out the memory of the trauma that they endured or were simply too afraid to file a lawsuit when they were younger. Up until the past two decades, many people who experienced abuse were simply not believed so they did not come forward at all.
Recognizing that, states began to either waive or lengthen the statutes of limitation in sex abuse cases. Here are some examples of changes made by certain states in response to growing reports of widespread sexual abuse:
- In 2013, Illinois’ governor signed a bill that removed all relevant statutes of limitations in sex abuse cases. Now survivors can bring a lawsuit at any time, regardless of how long ago the abuse allegedly occurred.
- New York and New Jersey both passed laws that extended the age until which sexual abuse survivors can file a claim to 55 years old.
- California now gives victims either until the age of 40 or until five years after the discovery of abuse to file a lawsuit.
- Texas recently expanded its statute of limitations in sex abuse civil suits against the abuser and institution until 30 years after the victim’s 18th birthday.
Other states have now given victims a several year window in which the statute of limitations is temporarily waived to allow them to file lawsuits. However, the waiver will expire at a certain point in time so victims must file lawsuits now. Some experts have estimated that the change in states’ statutes of limitations may subject the Catholic Church to approximately $4-5 billion of additional liability.
Q. Many organizations are declaring bankruptcy because of sex abuse liability. How does that affect my lawsuit?
A. Declaring bankruptcy does not allow the Catholic Church to escape responsibility for what they failed to do in protecting children from the actions of priests
Several dioceses have declared bankruptcy as a result of the crushing burden of legal liability that they may face due to large amounts of abuse victims. However, sex abuse victims can still receive financial compensation. Cases that have already been brought against the church and have been settled and paid are obviously not affected. However, the bankruptcy process does impact claims that have been filed or ones that are still to be filed in the future.
Those who are entitled to compensation due to sexual abuse become creditors of the Catholic Church. The exact amount of compensation becomes subject to the bankruptcy court and the trustee. The Church cannot use the bankruptcy process as a way of escaping its debts. However, bankruptcy may limit the amount of their assets that can be used to pay the victims for the harm that they have suffered.
As part of their bankruptcy filings, many organizations are establishing settlement funds to compensate victims that have or will file claims. However, some churches are aggressively trying to limit the amount of assets that will go to pay victims. Thus, aggressive legal counsel is necessary, but the bankruptcy process will ultimately have the final say over how much money you will receive.
Q. My abuse happened many years ago. How do I prove it?
A. You will prove that abuse occurred through a preponderance of the evidence.
The good news for sexual abuse survivors is that civil suits do not have the same standard of proof as criminal cases. In a criminal case, the abuse must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A civil case requires just a preponderance of the evidence.
Corroborating evidence may be unavailable most likely since the alleged assault will have happened decades ago. Many of the priests who committed the crimes are now dead and they cannot testify. Much of the proof will depend on the victim and their credibility. There may be the testimony of mental health professionals that is required to substantiate the allegations. Much of the prospect of recovery may depend on how much the victim is able to remember and the quality of those memories. As you can see from one of the cases detailed below, sometimes expert testimony demonstrating PTSD may be enough to persuade a jury. Sometimes, winning a sex abuse lawsuit is about showing that the defendant organizations knew or shew have known the abuse was occurring as opposed to proving that a certain act occurred.
Q. Who Can I Sue for Sex Abuse at the Hands of the Catholic Church?
A. The diocese where the abuse occurred would be financially responsible for the actions of the priest.
The Catholic Church is not a monolithic organization. In other words, there is not one overall Catholic Church to sue for sex abuse. Instead, each jurisdiction in the church is called a diocese, and it is overseen by a bishop. Each diocese is considered to be its own separate and distinct organization. The diocese holds assets and debts in its own name. It is the diocese that would have had the ultimate responsibility for supervising the priest, even if the abuse occurred within a particular parish.
In most cases, it would make sense to sue the diocese instead of the individual priest who committed the abuse. First of all, many of the priests died many years ago. Second, the individual priests would not have the assets necessary to satisfy a civil judgment. Typically, in a lawsuit like this, you will want to sue the defendant with the deepest pockets possible. In this case, it would be the diocese.
Q. Can I sue the Vatican over sex abuse?
A. Based on a recent court ruling, it could be a possibility
Several sex abuse victims filed a lawsuit against the Vatican, which would appear to be the deepest pocketed defendant of them all. There are different legal issues that are at play here, such as whether the Vatican, as a foreign entity, could be sued civilly in a U.S. court. However, a court recently ruled that a lawsuit against the Vatican could move forward on the theory that the priests and bishops who committed and covered up the sex abuse respectively, were employees of the Vatican. There is an exception to the law that would ordinarily shield the Vatican against this type of lawsuit for acts that are committed within the scope of the individual’s employment by the foreign country.
The Vatican has denied responsibility for the decades of abuse and said that it was unaware of what was happening. Now, this may be litigated in a courtroom in the U.S. Nonetheless, at the time of this writing, there was no legal precedent established since the case has yet to be tried. So the appropriate answer to this question is a “we will see.”
Q. Can I sue the individual parish where the abuse occurred?
A. Possibly. There are some recent cases that are beginning to look to the parishes for financial compensation.
Some plaintiffs are now trying to find their way around the bankruptcy filings that are occurring at the diocese level. They are trying to sue the parish that has its own assets and would not be subject to the bankruptcy filing.
An example of this is happening in Buffalo, NY, where the diocese has already filed for bankruptcy. This would keep the case in state court as opposed to having it moved to the bankruptcy court, which is where the case against the bankrupt diocese would be moved. Whether this is a viable strategy remains to be seen as of this writing because it is unclear how courts would rule.
Catholic Church Sex Abuse Large-Scale Settlements
Numerous dioceses have either filed for bankruptcy or entered into large-scale settlements with sex abuse victims. The total amount of Catholic Church sex abuse lawsuit settlements is now approximately $4 billion, and the number os expected to grow substantially. Here are some examples of recent Catholic Church sex abuse lawsuits:
- In 1997, the Diocese of Dallas became the first diocese to make a payment to settle cases, with a $31 million settlement.
- One of the earliest and largest settlements was entered into by the Diocese of Los Angeles. The diocese paid a total of $660 million to settle cases alleging abuse by over 200 priests. Each victim recovered an average of $780,000 for their share of the settlement.
- In 2007, the diocese of San Diego paid $198.1 million to settle 144 sex abuse lawsuits.
Catholic Church Sex Abuse Jury Verdicts
Cases that have gone to trial have resulted in even larger jury verdicts against the Catholic Church. Here are some examples:
- In 2015, a Minnesota jury awarded a plaintiff an $8.1 million verdict against the Diocese of Duluth for damages that included lost future earnings. The lawsuit alleged that the diocese failed to supervise the priest and should have known that the priest was a danger to children. After the jury verdict, which was one of the largest in the country at the time that it was issued, the Diocese of Duluth declared bankruptcy.
- In 2019, a jury in New York awarded four childhood victims of sexual abuse a total of $27.5 million in a lawsuit against the Diocese of Brooklyn. The children were between the ages of 8-12 at the time of the abuse. The incidents occurred in the mid-2000s so the victims’ memories were relatively fresh. The abuser was not employed by the diocese, but he was receiving a stipend so he was a representative of the diocese when committing the abuse. The abuser had already been barred from a daycare where he had been employed, and the plaintiffs claimed that the church should have been aware of that and realized why he was let go.
- In one of the earlier sexual abuse lawsuits, an Iowa jury aware a 56-year old man over $1.5 million in damages against the Diocese of Davenport as it found that it either knew or should have known the plaintiff’s abuse. The defendant unsuccessfully tried to have the case dismissed on statute of limitations issues that are no longer a consideration in many states that have either waived them or given a new window to sue. The plaintiff was able to prove his case based on expert testimony which showed he has PTSD from abuse.
Although the Catholic Church has stepped up its efforts to deal with the problem and has improved some of its oversight, sexual abuse by priests still continues today. While there are new levels of oversight and increased vetting and reporting methods, there is still the possibility of new cases of abuse.
The Assets of the Catholic Church: How This Impacts Victims
The reason why many dioceses have declared bankruptcy is that they do not want their staggering legal liability to take away from their vast assets. It is estimated that the Vatican alone may be worth as much as $15 billion with their large holdings of stocks and corporate interests. Even the Dicoese of Buffalo, which declared bankruptcy in the face of lawsuits, listed net assets of nearly $50 million. Its 2018 financial statement listed assets of approximately $66 million. While insurance has covered part of the settlements that individual dioceses have entered, their assets are still at risk due to the number of creditors.
You may be surprised to know exactly how many liquid assets the Catholic Church has. While some of the assets are in the form of property and real estate, each diocese will have millions of dollars in cash and even more in investments. Ordinarily, this would be subject to a judgment.
Now, dioceses are taking steps to shield their assets from the large numbers of creditors that they will owe. However, there have been numerous accounts of the Church reclassifying assets to keep them away from their creditors in the event that they declare bankruptcy. There was one media account that reported that the Church had moved or reclassified as much as $2 billion in assets to protect them.
Were You Sexually Abused By Someone Associated with the Catholic Church? Get Legal Help Now!
No matter how long ago your abuse occurred, as you can see from above, you may still be able to get justice for what you have gone through in the form of financial compensation. The Catholic Church cannot escape liability for its level of culpability throughout the decades of abuse that children were subjected to by thousands of priests. The Catholic Church sex abuse attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers can help you.
We recognize that this type of case deals with very sensitive subject matter and we will tactfully work with you, recognizing that this will likely cause trauma for you, even decades later. We commit to handling your case with the sensitivity that it deserves. Call us today to schedule your free initial consultation.