Lawsuits Against Catholic Priests Guilty of Sexual Abuse
In recent years, the tragic history of sexual abuse of child parishioners by priests has shaken the Catholic Church. In every U.S. state, and around the globe, investigations have uncovered thousands of credible allegations of sexual misconduct committed by priests over decades. Additionally, those inquiries have revealed longstanding practices within the Catholic Church that have covered-up abuse, as well as failures by the Church to punish abusers.
The law of the Catholic Church, known as Canon Law, does provide for the punishment of priests who have committed misconduct. The most severe punishment is known as loss of clerical state, commonly called “defrocking.” Below, we will take a look at what it means for a priest to be defrocked, and how survivors of sexual abuse committed by defrocked priests can seek justice, accountability, and compensation, regardless of whether, when, or how the Church has punished their abusers.
What It Means to Defrock a Priest
A priest who is dismissed from the clerical state loses important rights he has as a priest. He may not wear priestly vestments (robes and collar), and he may not say Mass, administer the Sacraments, or hear confession. However, at least in the eyes of Canon Law, the priest remains a priest. That is, being ordained as a priest, according to the Catholic faith, changes the nature of the person himself. Once a priest, always a priest; meaning, at least in theory, that the priest himself remains bound by his vows, even if he may no longer exercise any of the rights he once had.
A priest who has lost his clerical state does not necessarily get thrown out of the Church, in the sense of losing all contact. In fact, Canon Law requires that the Church continue to try to help the priest, to the extent the priest is willing to be helped. In some circumstances, the Church may even continue to provide care and support for a defrocked priest. This is one reason why the Church has, in some instances, come under fire for appearing to protect its own, even when they have committed crimes against children.
Not all priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors face a loss of their clerical state, either. The punishment is not automatic, and the Church sometimes takes factors into account that would not matter in the context of criminal or civil law. For instance, in one example offered by a canonical scholar, the Church may not dismiss a priest from the clerical state if it believes an older minor “consented” to sexual activity with a priest. Instead, the Church may sentence a priest to a life of “prayer and penance.”
Church Punishment Is Separate From Criminal Punishment
Just because the Catholic Church has its own system of discipline and punishment of priests who perpetrate sexual abuse against young parishioners, does not mean that guilty priests can escape the criminal justice system. Defrocked priests around the country have faced criminal prosecution for their abuse of children. The degree of punishment from the Church does not affect whether criminal law reaches them. They can be prosecuted and sentenced for their acts of sexual abuse just like anyone else.
Church Punishment Is Separate From Civil Liability
Neither the priests disciplined by the Church, nor the Church itself, can use Canon Law punishments as a basis for avoiding civil liability. Under the laws of every state in the country, a priest who sexually abuses children, and the Church institution the priest works for, could have legal liability for damages to the child harmed. The scope, nature, and duration of this liability can vary from one state to the next, as discussed further below. However, the Church does not escape liability for money damages by defrocking a priest, and the priest does not avoid civil court proceedings that could hold him accountable either.
Civil Liability of Defrocked Priests and the Church Institutions That Employed Them
What remedies could a civil lawsuit obtain for a survivor of sexual assault committed by a since-defrocked priest? Historically, the answer to that question was different from what it can be today.
In the past, survivors of sexual abuse by clergy often found that by the time they were ready to come forward and seek justice through a lawsuit, the time limit set by state law for suing for damages had expired. This was because the generic statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits in most states had not accommodated the particular challenges faced by survivors of childhood sexual violence perpetrated by priests and other clerics. The laws required people injured by someone else’s wrongdoing to take legal action within relatively short periods of time, whereas sexual abuse survivors can struggle into adulthood before coming to terms with what had happened to them as children.
Fortunately, due in large part to the tidal wave of allegations that contributed to the Catholic Church’s acknowledgment of a history of abuse, state legislatures around the country have recently taken steps to change their laws to accommodate survivors of sexual assault by clergy. Today, in many states, survivors benefit from expanded time periods to take legal action against defrocked priests and the Church institutions that harbored them and (in some cases) covered-up their crimes.
In each lawsuit seeking justice and accountability for acts of sexual abuse committed by a since-defrocked priest, there are unique facts and motives.
However, as a general matter, legal action against abusers and Church institutions could seek:
- Monetary damages to help compensate a survivor for the direct trauma inflicted by a priest, as well as for the indirect harm that often follows survivors for decades afterward which can lead to a variety of life-struggles, from mental health issues and substance abuse to relationship difficulties and more. Money cannot undo the trauma of sexual abuse by a priest, but it could help support survivors in coming to terms with what happened to them, and move forward with their lives. In some states, laws have authorized some enhanced monetary remedies, such as treble damages, against Church institutions that have covered up abuse.
- Non-monetary damages, such as court orders directing Church institutions to take steps designed to increase transparency and to protect against further instances of abuse. Many survivors of priest sexual abuse come forward because they want to do their part to help reduce instances of sexual abuse within the Church. In addition to monetary damages, their lawsuits may seek these sorts of non-monetary remedies that are aimed at directing the Church to be proactive in its efforts to eradicate sexual-abuser priests from its ranks, and to reassure its followers that it seriously considers their safety and the safety of their children.
Taking legal action will not guarantee monetary or non-monetary success. However, the chance of a positive outcome for a survivor seeking accountability for sexual abuse by a defrocked priest is higher than it once was, because of the favorable changes in the statutes of limitations in states across the country.
Survivors should act right away to help protect their rights. Some states have opened special time windows, during which survivors of priest-perpetrated sexual abuse can take legal action no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. These windows will eventually close (some very soon), so survivors who believe they might want to seek accountability through the courts in their state should speak with an attorney with experience in this field.
How Attorneys Help Survivors of Sexual Abuse by a Defrocked Priest
Survivors of sexual abuse by priests may have mixed feelings about what, if anything, lawyers can do to help them. In some cases, their experience with the legal system has not given them much confidence in its ability to achieve justice. For years, priests escaped criminal liability for sexual abuse. Survivors who felt disappointment at the inaction of prosecutors may never have even imagined it was possible to sue a priest or the Church of money damages.
Those who had explored the civil lawsuit option previously may have found their access to courts blocked by antiquated statute of limitations rules. Understandably, many do not realize that those rules have changed. With the help of an experienced clergy sexual abuse injury attorney, many survivors could finally have a chance to see the legal system work for them, rather than against them.
Every case differs, of course, but experienced and well-resourced lawyers could help survivors of abuse by priests who have since lost their clerical status by:
Investigating a History and Pattern of Abuse
Throughout the years, survivors and their advocates have revealed records and information that have forced the Catholic Church to acknowledge the history of sexual abusers within its ranks. In many cases, the evidence that those efforts have yielded can now benefit survivors, currently coming forward, in their efforts to hold individual abusers and the Church accountable. Lawyers who understand the long history of these cases, and the sources of information, might help unearth proof that the Church knew about individual abusers and failed to stop them. Evidence like this, or other relevant evidence, can help build a strong case for monetary and non-monetary damages, even if the abuse had occurred decades ago.
Developing a Plan That Helps Serve the Survivor’s Interests
Every survivor of sexual abuse perpetrated by a now-defrocked priest has an individual story to tell and personal reasons for choosing when and how to step forward to seek justice and accountability. Skilled lawyers for sexual abuse survivors know the critical importance of listening to their clients first, and then developing legal strategies that could help serve their client’s goals and purposes. Revealing a history of sexual abuse by a priest takes immense courage, and lawyers for these brave survivors must honor that.
Plans that lawyers develop for their individual clients tend to vary, depending upon the client’s priorities. In some cases, the lawyer may advise seeking a “quiet” settlement of a matter. In others, the lawyer may develop a long-term strategy for shining a light on the actions of a particular defrocked priest, or on a diocese that turned a blind eye to the priest’s wrongdoing. There is a legal strategy for every survivor.
Pursuing Justice and Accountability In and Out of Court
Once a lawyer and a client have settled on a strategy, the lawyer can get to work implementing it to achieve a beneficial outcome for the client. Matters involving sexual abuse by a defrocked priest tend to evoke strong emotions, and may even receive public attention. An experienced lawyer for a survivor can prepare to manage the process as well as possible while pursuing justice and accountability throughout the proceedings.
What to Do if You Find out Your Parish Priest Was Defrocked
If you learn that the Church removed the priest from your childhood parish from his clerical state, and you have traumatic memories of the time you spent with him, contact an experienced lawyer who represents survivors of clergy sexual abuse. The information you have learned may represent just the tip of the iceberg of records and accounts that show what the Church knew and the actions they took concerning that priest. You may have the right to receive compensation for any lasting harm that the priest inflicted upon you.
Be aware, however, that survivors across the country remain subject to state laws, which means they may not have much time to act before a window of opportunity closes for them to take legal action to hold a defrocked priest and his diocese accountable for sexual trauma. If you or a loved one have survived abuse by a priest who has since been defrocked, contact an experienced Catholic Church sexual abuse lawyer for a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation.