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What To Do After Being Sexually Abused

clerical sexual abuse

In the public imagination, clerical sexual abuse is typically associated with the Catholic Church, and the set of scandals which rocked the Church in the late 1990s and early 2000s after sexual abuse that had remained buried for decades finally came to light.

These scandals forced the Catholic Church to come to a reckoning on the practices of some of its clergy, and allowed victims who had remained silent all their lives to finally receive some measure of vindication and justice. They also forced the Church to come to terms with its own poor handling of the claims, including many cases in which church authorities knew about abuse and remained silent.

Although it is certainly a good thing that these scandals have been revealed, it is important to remember that clerical sexual abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church. Clergy of all religions, including every Protestant denomination, Judaism, Islam, and many others, have been found guilty of sexual abuse of children. And while precise statistics can be hard to come by, the rate of sexual abuse among Catholic priests does not seem to be higher than among clergy of other religions.

Unfortunately, because these clergy do not fit the popular perception of what a clerical sexual abuser looks like, some of their victims have difficulty being taken seriously or getting the attention they deserve. The Catholic Church, too, although it has been forced to take a good long look in the mirror in recent years, still has a long way to go before it completely eliminates abusers from its ranks.

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As a result, an unknown, but potentially very large number of children worldwide continue to suffer.

All child sexual abuse is wrong, but clerical abuse is particularly heinous in certain respects, because it involves a grotesque abuse of power by trusted authority figures who claim divine sanction, and who posit themselves as spiritual and moral leaders of their communities. Abuse of a child by someone who holds such seeming moral legitimacy carries with it a unique sense of betrayal and broken trust, and this can make the victim’s pain even more burdensome.

For individuals who have suffered child sexual abuse by a clergy member, the healing process can be long and difficult. However, perpetrators of this evil crime can, and should, be held liable in court.

The personal injury law system allows a number of avenues for this to happen, and for clerical sexual abusers to be held responsible for their actions and compelled to make amends to their victims. A lawsuit does not make the pain of abuse go away. However, for many victims it does bring a certain sense of closure and justice about having held the perpetrator responsible for their actions.

clerical sexual abuse of children

Understanding Clerical Sexual Abuse

Just how common is clerical sexual abuse? For obvious reasons, it is difficult to get a completely accurate number. However, it has been estimated that the rate of sexual abuse among Catholic clergy is around 4%, and it is likely that this number is just as high in other religions.

4% sounds like a lot, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of Catholic clergy, as well as clergy from other religions, are not abusers. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has often been complicit in child sexual abuse. In some cases, fellow clergy who knew about the abuse refused to report it or even worked to actively cover it up, and courageous voices which spoke out against the problem, most notably Father Gerald Fitzgerald of Boston, were largely ignored.

Why do priests commit abuse? Some have suggested that the Catholic requirement of clerical celibacy leads priests to take their frustrations on children, but this is a controversial speculation, and it would not do anything to explain abuse by clergy in other religions who are not required to be celibate. It is more likely that priests and other clergy members simply have more opportunities to abuse children and get away with it, being as they are in positions of power.

It is also difficult to know whether rates of abuse have gone down in recent years. The Catholic Church has been forced to confront its own failure to act, and has changed many of its practices in dealing with abusers, leading some people to assume that the sexual abuse problem is “over” and that most of the major perpetrators have been brought to justice.

This, however, is a flawed assumption to make, because abuse can take decades to be uncovered. Most of the cases of clerical sexual abuse which surfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s were from the 1970s or even earlier. If this pattern holds, then we may not gain a full understanding of the scope of modern-day clerical abuse until at least the 2040s.

Indeed, some critics allege that the Church, despite its recent steps towards reform, has not done enough, and that abuse continues to be a serious problem.

This is why it is important to never assume that the problem of clerical abuse is over, and to take any signs of abuse seriously. It is just as important to not fall into the trap of assuming that abuse is solely a “Catholic problem” and thereby disregarding warning signs from other types of religious figures.

Warning Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

You may be reading this because you yourself have suffered clerical sexual abuse, or you may be reading this because you are a parent of a child who might have been abused. If you are the latter, there are a few signs of which you should be aware. If your child is exhibiting one or more of these signs, it does not mean that abuse is necessarily happening, but several of these signs taken together are certainly reason for suspicion.

The first type of signs that you should look out for are physical warning signs. These may include pain, bruises, or bleeding anywhere on the child’s body, but especially in the genital areas; trouble using the toilet; and difficulty controlling the bladder or bowels.

Other signs of abuse are more emotional. These include mood swings, anger, fear, withdrawal, secretiveness, anger or depression, changes in eating or sleeping patterns including nightmares, regression to more youthful behaviors, and acting out sexually.

The child may display an age-inappropriate knowledge of matters regarding sex, and older children and teenagers may exhibit promiscuous behavior or develop eating disorders. Children who are being abused might even become suicidal, run away from home, or engage in other self-destructive behaviors.

Your child may demonstrate fear around the person who is abusing them, and not want to be alone for extended periods of time. For their part, the abuser might show an unnatural interest in the child, spend long periods alone with the child, and show inappropriate physical affection or give them expensive gifts.

Again, not all of these warning signs are definite red flags, but they are all good reasons to inquire further. If you suspect that your child is being abused, then you should reach out to them and take them seriously. Be gentle with them, and make it clear that you are not angry with them and they have not done anything wrong. This may be a difficult conversation for both of you, but it is necessary if you want to put a stop to any potential abuse.

Who is at risk for clerical sexual abuse? Any child can be a victim, boys as well as girls. Although many people assume that the youngest children are the most vulnerable, in fact it is children who have reached the age of puberty (between 10 and 14) who are most likely to suffer sexual abuse.

Abuse of children in this age group is not technically “pedophilia,” since that term applies specifically to the attraction to children who have not yet reached puberty, but it is still a very harmful form of sexual predation and needs to be addressed immediately whenever it is uncovered.

clerical sexual abuse lawsuits

Child Sexual Abuse and the Civil Court System

If you are considering filing a lawsuit against a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, then it is important to understand that civil lawsuits are different from criminal prosecutions.

In a criminal case, a person accused of child sexual abuse (or another crime) is forced to defend themselves in a criminal court. In such cases, the accuser is the government, represented by a public prosecutor. If they are found guilty, then they will face various state-imposed criminal punishments, such as jail time and fines.

Criminal cases are difficult to prosecute, because they place a very high burden of proof on the prosecutor. The prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” (i.e. that they are almost certainly guilty) before the defendant can be punished. Also, while the defendant may be severely punished, a criminal conviction provides no direct justice to the victims of the crime.

In a civil case, however, the people who were directly harmed by the defendant’s actions file a lawsuit to recover damages. If you file such a lawsuit, you will be a plaintiff, not a prosecutor, and the defendant, if found responsible, will be liable, not guilty. If you win, then the defendant will not face criminal punishment but will instead be forced to pay you damages, typically in the form of money.

Civil law is based on the notion that individuals who commit torts, or actions which harm another, should be made to compensate for their crimes. There are a number of different torts, many of which (although not all) correspond to various criminal offenses. Fortunately, child sexual abuse is an offense under tort law, although the precise definitions used to pursue the civil case might be slightly different from those used in the criminal law system.

A civil case holds a number of benefits for the victims of child sexual abuse. For one, it provides them with direct monetary compensation, unlike a criminal conviction, which can only provide them with an abstract sense of justice.

For another, the burden of proof is lower in a civil trial than in a criminal one. The plaintiff must only prove that the defendant was guilty by a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means it is more likely than not that the offense happened. (If it helps you can consider “beyond a reasonable doubt” to mean that the jurors must be 99% certain that the offense happened, and “preponderance of the evidence” to mean that the jurors must only be 51% certain.)

This can sometimes come as a surprise to individuals who have suffered child sexual abuse! Many of them wrongly assume that if the perpetrator has had a criminal trial, there is nothing more they can do. In fact, a person can face both criminal and civil charges for the same actions, and because the burden of proof is different, people can even be held liable in a civil case after being found not guilty in a criminal one. This has happened many times.

Legal Issues in Clerical Sexual Abuse Cases

There are a variety of issues at play in clerical sexual abuse cases, which can make them particularly complex to litigate.

For one thing, there is the issue of who the defendant should be. This might sound like a very simple and straightforward question. Of course, the defendant should be the clergy member who actually committed the abuse.

This is true, but it is not always the whole truth. In many cases, the defendants can also include other parties, most notably the church or religious organization that the clergy member was a part of, if it turned a blind eye to the abuse.

You see, one of the most important issues in clerical sexual abuse, particularly abuse cases which occur within the Catholic Church, has been the issue of priest-penitent privilege.

Priest-penitent privilege, as the name suggests, is a rule by which secrets told to priests during religious confession, or certain other confidential settings, cannot be used as evidence in court, even if the penitent admitted to doing something illegal. In this sense, priest-penitent privilege is similar to attorney-client privilege, or other legal privileges.

It’s easy to see why priest-penitent privilege exists: without it, people would not be as quick to trust their clergy with sensitive matters. After all, one of the major themes of Christianity and many other religions involves dealing with sin, and some of this may involve illegal acts. People who wish to discuss these acts in a religious setting should feel free to do so.

However, priest-penitent privilege has been used by the Catholic Church in the past to cover up child sexual abuse. Sometimes, priests even used this privilege to knowingly skirt the legal system, by “confessing” to other priests and then rendering them incapable of testifying against them.

To solve this problem, many states have classified clergy as “mandated reporters.” This means that they have a legal duty to report child abuse, and can be prosecuted if they fail to do so. The duty to report child abuse as a mandated reporter is so strong that it overrides the duty of priest-penitent privilege, in cases when the two come into conflict.

Even if a priest or other clergy member was not a mandated reporter, however, they may still be held responsible if they knew that the abuse was happening, but did not take any steps to stop it. Employers, including religious organizations, have a duty to hire responsibly, and they can be held vicariously responsible for their employees’ actions if they were negligent in their hiring or if they knowingly allowed the abuse to occur.

Individual clergy members who shared responsibility for allowing sexual abuse to occur can be sued. So can the church or religious organization as a whole. Religious bodies are considered to be legal “persons,” which means that they can be sued in their own name in court.

Under what torts are predators found guilty of child sexual abuse? There are a number, but they can include assault, battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and negligent hiring. Any sexual contact with a child under the age of consent is typically considered to be assault or battery, even if the child nominally gave “consent.”

The two main categories of tort in personal injury law are negligence and intentional harm. Torts surrounding child sexual abuse will primarily involve intentional actions, although in some cases (particularly those involving irresponsible hiring practices) they may also involve claims of negligence. The precise causes of action, of course, will depend on the circumstances of your case.

clerical sexual abuse - signs

Damages in a Clerical Sexual Abuse Case

Plaintiffs in child sexual abuse cases are also entitled to a variety of different types of damages. The most straightforward of these are economic damages, which are meant to cover the strictly economic costs of the abuse. In a case of child sexual abuse, these will primarily consist of the costs of psychiatric help.

However, plaintiffs in child sexual abuse cases will also be entitled to other types of damages. These include noneconomic damages, which cover costs that are less easily quantifiable but no less real, such as pain and suffering, and punitive damages, which exist purely to punish the defendant.

In this particular regard, sexual abuse lawsuits are easier than other types of cases to litigate. Because child sexual abuse, particular when done by religious clergy, is so heinous and so objectionable to the general public, juries are typically much more likely to award plaintiffs high levels of noneconomic and punitive damages.

Both the child victim and the child’s parent or caregiver are eligible to sue; the caregiver may sue in the child’s name if the child is a minor, but in these cases, the child will receive the damages (which will typically be placed in a trust until the child turns 18). However, the caregiver may also sue in their own name for damages that they have incurred, including medical bills as well as pain and suffering. Consequently, damages can be awarded to either the child or the caregiver.

The Statute of Limitations

Some clerical sexual abuse cases are hampered by statutes of limitations, which place a deadline on how long a lawsuit can be filed after a crime (or civil violation) takes place.Just about every jurisdiction has some sort of statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, although the precise time limit varies.

Statutes of limitations exist because it can be difficult to try a case about events that occurred far in the past; people’s memories of the event tend to deteriorate, and so do other types of evidence. However, statutes of limitations can pose major difficulties in bringing to justice perpetrators of child sexual abuse, because many victims do not come forward until long after the abuse has occurred.

As a result, some states have adjusted their statute of limitations laws in cases of child sexual abuse, to allow victims to come forward long after the fact. The precise laws vary, and if you are considering filing such a lawsuit, you should be familiar with the laws in your state. If they are confusing, then we can help you figure out more clearly what they mean and how they apply to you.

Final Thoughts

Millions of people all over the world have been outraged at the recent revelations of just how widespread clerical sexual abuse really is. We at Torklaw share in their outrage, but we are in a unique position: as personal injury attorneys, we have the power to do something about it, and go after the bad people who choose to prey on children.

Personal injury law is always a difficult business, and attorneys are used to working with clients who have suffered significant and devastating losses. Even within this emotionally fraught field, however, child sex abuse cases are especially difficult to try, and of all the types of child sexual abuse, clerical abuse (involving one of the most abominable breaches of trust imaginable) is one of the most difficult to try.

Of course, such lawsuits are most difficult for the plaintiff, and many abuse victims may have doubts about whether they are ready to go through the process. This, of course, is entirely your decision, and we recognize that a great many victims of child sexual abuse will choose not to go down this path.

However, for many others, it is deeply satisfying to get to have your day in court and hold the abuser accountable for their actions. And while abuse can never be undone, settlements in such cases can often be significant, and provide a level of freedom to the victim that was taken away by the abuse.

Finally, obtaining justice in this way has one very important benefit: it sends a clear message to other predators that their actions will not be tolerated by society, and sooner or later, they will be held accountable. For some people who were abused themselves as children, it can be very meaningful to take an action that might help dissuade future abuse and save even a few other children from suffering in the same way.

Don’t just take our word for it, either. Many victim’s advocacy organizations agree that civil lawsuits are the right step to take, and an important part of bringing perpetrators to justice. For instance, the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) says that “We encourage all crime victims to report to law enforcement, including civil attorneys who are qualified to advise them of their legal rights.”

Here at Torklaw, our firm consists of a group of personal injury attorneys with extensive experience in handling sensitive cases, including child abuses cases involving clerical misconduct. We know how to fight hard in the courtroom for our clients, but we also know how important it is to never forget the human element, and always treat our clients like real human beings with real stories.

If you are a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or other religious leader, we will advocate for you and listen to you, and fight to ensure that you recover your full sense of human dignity. Call Torklaw today for a FREE consultation, and we will start figuring out what we can do for you.