Holding Priests Accountable for Sexual Abuse
If the early 21st century has had a common theme, one could argue it consists of a surge in efforts to hold historically protected and powerful individuals and institutions accountable for long-running, long-ignored misconduct. The reckoning that has come upon the Catholic Church stands as a pinnacle example of those efforts. After generations of silence and cover-ups, the combined voices of survivors of sexual abuse by priests have begun to receive the attention they deserve. The dam broke, and the Church had no choice but to confront the open secret of sexual predator priests, bishops, and other clergy in its ranks.
One of the driving forces in holding individual clerics and the Church, and as an institution, accountable for abuse has been the non-profit organization, Bishop Accountability. Through its educational website, BishopAccountabiliy.org, this organization has collected and published information about thousands of accused and convicted priests and other clergy in dioceses throughout the United States and around the world. Below, we will take a closer look at the information collected by Bishop Accountability and the legal rights of survivors of abuse committed by the priests that the organization has identified.
If you or a loved one suffered abuse by a priest, regardless of how long ago it occurred, contact an experienced clergy sexual abuse attorney today to learn about your rights.
Recording the Scope of the Problem, in Numbers and Words
According to Bishop Accountability, the latest data published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) “indicates that the conference has counted 7,002 clerics ‘not implausibly’ and ‘credibly’ accused of sexually abusing minors” since 1950, and 20,052 known victims of abuse during that time. Both numbers may represent an incomplete count because of gaps in data, instances where both the abusers and victims have since died, and the fact that many instances of abuse go unreported.
Dioceses across the United States have been presented with credible accusations of abuse by priests and other clergy working in their ranks. While the number of parishes affected in each diocese varies, estimates of the number of parishes within a diocese where abuser-priests harmed children have reached as high as 75 percent in at least one major diocese, and has topped over 60 percent in others.
Survivors’ accounts of abuse, collected and re-published by Bishop Accountability, recount instances of betrayal and cruelty committed by priests and other clerics against young, innocent victims. The emotional and spiritual scars left by sexual abuse perpetrated by guilty priests can run profoundly deep. Decades later, survivors have recounted instances of abuse and predation in significant detail. Many describe lives that have been marred by the abuse they suffered. Numerous survivors have struggled with mental health disturbances, substance abuse, and relationship difficulties, to name just a few of the long-lasting effects of their trauma. Some took their own lives.
To spend time reading through the volumes of material on BishopAccountability.org is to take a tour through a massive institutional failure to protect children, and efforts to cover up these disturbing crimes over decades.
The March of Justice
Bishop Accountability also keeps track of legal actions against clergy, and the Church, arising from allegations of sexual abuse by priests and other clerics. This includes both criminal and civil legal actions. The site reports that thousands of civil lawsuits have been filed, resulting in billions of dollars in verdicts and settlements, as well as non-monetary terms that have required the Church and individual diocese to take steps to prevent future abuse. Although they may seem long overdue in many cases, these lawsuits represent substantive steps toward bringing abusers to justice and helping to ensure that survivors receive the compensation they deserve.
Bishop Accountability is not the only website that tracks pedophile priests. Not-for-profit news website ProPublica, which frequently partners with other news sources, published an excellent investigative report with the Houston Chronicle that describes how credibly accused priests continue to serve the Catholic Church, as well as a searchable database of publicly accused priests and a FAQ about the database’s scope and limits.
The AP maintains a newswire dedicated to stories from its archives about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Few days go by without the AP adding a new story to the site, indicating that abusive priests continue to plague parishioners, who have every right to seek justice for the inability and in many cases the unwillingness of the Catholic Church to protect their most vulnerable members from predatory clergy.
National Catholic Reporter
The name might indicate an association with the Catholic Church, but while this independent news site covers issues involving the Catholic Church, the church hierarchy clearly doesn’t control it. The newspaper and website have provided dogged coverage of the church’s sex abuse scandal, with a dedicated channel that rivals the Associated Press’s for through reporting. Its constant updates continue to show the Catholic Church’s negligence in properly supervising and disciplining pedophile priests.
That’s Not All
Too many other credible news sources, from the New York Times to the BBC, have channels or newswires dedicated to the Catholic sex abuse scandal to list here. You can also search your local media for stories about priest sexual abuse in your community. You will find few corners of the world that remain immune from the damages inflicted by pedophile priests—and few places where the Catholic Church doesn’t owe restitution to the victims of its negligence or its active participation in covering up the crimes of its clergy.
Expanding Time Limits for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Priests to Take Legal Action
As documented by Bishop Accountability and others, the steady and determined efforts of advocates for victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests have opened new avenues for survivors to seek justice and accountability.
In the past, many survivors of this type of sexual abuse realized that the legal deadline for filing a claim with the court (the statute of limitations) had expired by the time they were ready to step forward and make allegations against clergy. There was a disconnect between the legal timeline and the difficulty that many survivors experience in coming to terms with what happened. It can take time to conjure the strength and courage to speak out about what had happened to a survivor during their childhood.
State legislatures around the country began to take notice of this issue, thanks in large part to the work of the advocates for survivors. Many of these efforts were documented by Bishop Accountability. Over the past decade, many states have passed new legislation to lengthen the time-limits for survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy to take legal action against their abusers, and anyone who enabled or covered-up abuse.
- In Florida, there is no statute of limitations for legal claims relating to acts of abuse that constituted the crime of sexual battery, if the victim was under 16 years of age and the abuse occurred on or after July 1, 2010. For all other acts of abuse, the deadline is: within 7 years after the age of majority; or within 4 years after the injured person leaves the dependency of the abuser; or within 4 years from the time of discovery by the injured party of both the injury and the causal relationship between the injury and the abuse.
- In California, a survivor of childhood abuse by a priest can take legal action “within 22 years of the date the [survivor] attains the age of majority or within five years of the date the [survivor] discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by the sexual assault, whichever period expires later.” Also, until December 31, 2022, any survivor of childhood sexual abuse in California can take legal action for damages against an abuser or enabler of abuse, no matter how far in the past the abuse happened.
- In New Jersey, the statute of limitations extends to the latter of the survivor turning 55 or “within seven years from the date of reasonable discovery of the injury and its causal relationship to” the abuse. In addition, until December 1, 2021, survivors of childhood abuse by a priest or other member of the clergy can take legal action no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.
- In Washington, D.C., the statute of limitations extends to the survivor’s 40th birthday or within five years after the survivor could have reasonably known of the abuse. A law that took effect recently also opened a two-year window for any survivor to take legal action, regardless of how long ago the abuse had occurred.
These are just a few of many examples. States continue to pass statutes that give survivors of priest sexual abuse new opportunities to seek justice and accountability for past abuse and trauma. Speak with an experienced attorney today to learn about the time limits that may apply to you or a loved one. Even if abuse occurred long ago, you may still have the right to recover compensation from an abuser, or from the Church institution (such as a diocese) that enabled, turned a blind eye to, or covered up the past abuse.
How Lawyers Could Help Survivors of Abuse by Priests
Anyone who has seen the movie Spotlight, which tells the story of how Boston Globe investigative journalists helped to expose the sexual abuse epidemic in the Catholic Church, may come away with mixed feelings about lawyers. In the movie, one lawyer wages a lonely fight in representing survivors against the Church and its allies in the community. Another lawyer is portrayed as having facilitated the Church’s efforts to cover up abuse, and a third lawyer only provides information about the Church’s conduct after being pressured to do so.
Regardless of whether Hollywood took some liberties with these portrayals, many real survivors of abuse have felt wary about seeking help from lawyers in holding the Church and abuser-priests accountable. They may have doubted the sincerity of lawyers. They might have believed that even the most determined and well-meaning lawyer could not succeed in going up against such a powerful institution.
However, many lawyers today have the tools, knowledge, and resources to confront the Church over cases of abusive priests and other clergy, and to help hold individual abusers and Church institutions accountable. Because of the expanded deadlines described above, attorneys who work with survivors of sexual abuse by priests can often:
Investigate Sexual Abuse
Lawyers for survivors now have more options for tying survivors’ allegations to Church records and other resources that can help prove the abuse. Investigating allegations of sexual assault by a priest is not easy. Lawyers often must work closely with survivors and their mental health providers (if applicable), to dig into the facts while protecting the survivor from further trauma. Survivors can take some comfort in knowing that, because of previous investigations exposing patterns of abuse and the subsequent concealment of the abuse, it is now less difficult to connect related cases.
Develop a Legal Strategy for a Survivor
Survivors of Catholic Church sexual abuse step forward with their allegations, sometimes after long periods of keeping their stories secret, for a wide variety of reasons. Some want acknowledgment from the Church that it betrayed them. Some want financial compensation to help pay for the support they need in living with the scars of their past trauma. Many want to do their part to help prevent abuse from occurring in the future.
Lawyers with experience in seeking accountability for sexual assaults by priests understand the critical importance of listening to the survivors. Attorneys who work in this field understand the importance of the survivors’ needs and goals in coming forward, and can develop legal strategies to help them do so. That may mean pursuing a quiet settlement of a case for one client while proposing an aggressive and public-facing strategy for another. Each case has its own unique requirements.
Execute the Strategy to See Justice Done
Lawyers for survivors of sexual abuse committed by priests have knowledge and resources to put their legal strategies to work. Attorneys for survivors can draw upon wells of experience, empathy, and determination in pursuing the strategy a survivor-client has chosen. As described above, the goal of many legal actions on behalf of survivors is typically to obtain financial compensation and, often, to force Church institutions to make changes and take actions to help ensure that no one else suffers the same trauma as the survivor.
You can see proof of the success of various strategies for pursuing justice for survivors throughout the pages of Bishop Accountability. Drawing upon their clients’ extraordinary bravery, attorneys for survivors have achieved significant monetary and non-monetary outcomes that have the potential to spur lasting change within the Church when it comes to cases like this.
Damages Caused by Sexual Abuse
Those that suffer sexual abuse at the hands of members of the Catholic clergy can suffer significant damages that can drastically affect their life. When someone experiences sexual abuse or assault, they not only suffer physically but mentally as well. There are tangible economic damages that can be caused by this abuse and non-economic damages that are just as legitimate but not as tangible and easy to calculate. Some of the most common damages that people sustain as a result of sexual abuse include:
Medical Bills: Sexual abuse can often result in physical injury to those that suffer it. Many people that suffer sexual abuse or assault can end up being physically struck by their assailant, they can suffer injury to their genitals because of the sexual assault, or they can contract sexually transmitted infections after being sexually abused. All of these injuries take treatment that can significantly impact a person’s finances and should be compensated through a sexual assault claim.
Mental Anguish: A less tangible damage caused by sexual abuse is the psychological trauma that a person undergoes. Sexual abuse is an extremely traumatic experience that can leave a person in a very mentally pained state. Being violated by a member of the community that was trusted is an especially painful betrayal that can negatively affect a person. Mental anguish is not easy to measure like the fiscal impact of a medical bill but it is nonetheless important when it comes to compensation in a sexual abuse claim.
Psychological Counseling: As a result of the trauma suffered because of sexual abuse, those that survive the ordeal will typically need psychological treatment for the myriad of mental health issues that can develop as a result of sexual abuse. Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder are very common mental health issues that affect sexual abuse survivors. They are illnesses that can be treated with the proper care provided by a professional but this process can be complex and time-consuming. It is also not cheap so those that need this treatment can have their finances significantly affected.
What to Do if You Find Information on Bishop Accountability or Other Credible Websites
If you find information on BishopAccountability.org that triggers traumatic memories for you or a loved one, then know that help is available. After years of suffering in relative silence, many survivors of sexual abuse by priests, bishops, and other clergy have had the chance to seek justice thanks to the efforts of other survivors, allies, and attorneys.
In some cases, however, you may not have much time to act before crucial windows of time begin to close on your legal rights to hold abusers and enablers accountable. If you believe you or a loved one sustained abuse through the actions of an accused priest you hear about on BishopAccountability.org, then contact an experienced clergy sexual abuse attorney right away for a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation by calling our Clearwater office at 727-451-6900.