On August 27, 2019, reports from an Associated Press investigation revealed that a Catholic religious order recently settled sexual abuse cases with two Mississippi men, who were paid $15,000 each and were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. People have talked for years about Catholic clergy sexual misconduct in the United States. A Pennsylvania grand jury investigated allegations of sexual abuse by Church clergy. The report, released in August 2018, detailed shocking acts of sexual abuse and assault committed against minors, often young children, and brought a heightened awareness to the wrongdoing. For some time, the Church has been making payments to alleged abuse survivors. It is difficult to know exactly how many children have been victims of sexual assault committed by clergy, but for each individual, the suffering from a sexual assault can last for life. A knowledgable sexual abuse attorney or child sexual assault lawyer who understands the deeply personal nature of sexual abuse claims can seek justice for you with skill, commitment, and sensitivity. The $15,000 payments are far less than what other Catholic sexual abuse survivors have typically received. An official from the Franciscan religious order denied that the two men’s race or poverty had anything to do with the size of the settlements offered to them. However, in 2006, the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, settled 19 cases with an average payout of more than $250,000 for each survivor. Also in 2006, a Franciscan province based in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles settled claims with an average payment of nearly 1.3 million for each survivor. A recent settlement in the St.-Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese included an average payment of nearly $500,000 each for abuse survivors. Overall, Catholic dioceses have paid more than $3.8 billion to settle the claims of more than 8,600 victims of sexual assault by Catholic clergy.
The Florida Investigation
Catholic officials have been promising to end the cover-up of clergy abuse for nearly two decades. The Pennsylvania grand jury report identified 301 Catholic priests who allegedly sexually abused over 1,000 children. At least 14 of these priests had ties to Florida. There are seven dioceses in Florida: Miami, St. Petersburg, Venice, St. Augustine, Orlando, Pensacola-Tallahassee, and Palm Beach. The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee covers 18 counties in northwest Florida and serves approximately 77,900 Catholics. In October 2018, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced that all seven of Florida’s Catholic dioceses were under statewide investigation for alleged clergy abuse. The current attorney general of Florida, Ashley Moody, has requested the Florida dioceses to release the names of all Catholic clergy members who have been credibly accused. Many dioceses in Florida, including the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, have chosen to wait until the conclusion of the investigation before releasing the names. However, more than half of U.S. dioceses have released the names of credibly accused clergy. Bishop Accountability, a U.S. non-profit organization, includes links to abuse reports since the 1980s. It also contains testimonies of survivors of clerical abuse and court documents related to criminal prosecutions and lawsuits in the United States. The Bishop Accountability Database contains a list of publicly accused clergy in the United States, including those in the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. It is important to know that the information contained in the database does not necessarily mean that persons listed as facing allegations are either guilty of a crime or liable for civil legal actions.
Civil Lawsuits Related to Sexual Assault by Clergy
Following the release of the Pennsylvania report, as well as other reports of alleged sexual abuse, hundreds of victims filed lawsuits claiming to have suffered abuse because of the Catholic Church’s negligence. It is hard to grasp the scope of this problem fully. Statistics about these claims, cases, and settlements are difficult to identify, so most sources rely on information provided by plaintiff attorneys. According to an article in the 2004 Fordham Urban Law Journal, since 1984, there have been about 3,000 civil cases related to alleged clergy sex abuse in the U.S., most of which have ended in a settlement. Sexual abuse and assault are unquestionably crimes, but they often go unreported for many years. There are many reasons for this. The victims are often young children, sexual abuse is a source of huge emotional trauma, and the victim may find it hard to process or acknowledge it. Problems with the statute of limitations block many criminal court cases against alleged abusers. However, abuse survivors are entitled to be heard, to justice, and to monetary compensation for the harm they have suffered. Therefore, a civil lawsuit is often the best or possibly the only course of action for abuse survivors. If you are a plaintiff in a civil case alleging sexual assault, you and your attorney must prove the negligence of that liable party and establish that it caused the damages you suffered. You are not limited to suing the perpetrator; you can sue any person, institution, or organization directly or indirectly involved with the sexual abuse. That may include a school, hospital, business, the perpetrator’s employer, or another entity that either knew or should have known of the abuse. If the organization failed to provide adequate safeguards against the risk of sexual abuse, it might be liable for such negligence. Frequently, the parties reach an agreement based on the evidence and settle the case out of court. Sexual abuse survivors usually bring claims against the church due to negligence. Negligence refers to conduct that creates an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to others. For example, even though the Church was aware of the alleged abuse, it continued to employ and keep credibly accused priests despite the potential danger to others. The Church may be liable for its misconduct because:
- The Church was negligent because it hired the perpetrator without proper screening or evaluation.
- The Church was negligent in supervising the perpetrator.
- The Church retained the perpetrator even after receiving information indicating that they posed a risk of harm to others.
- The Church covered up the matter, for example, by transferring the priest to another jurisdiction.
Financial Damages for Clergy Sexual Abuse
If a sexual abuse survivor prevails in a civil lawsuit against a defendant, the punishment is not imprisonment. Instead, punishment is in the form of monetary damages. For many victims, there is an undeniable connection between child sexual abuse and mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. For the victim of a sexual assault, the suffering is pervasive, and the lifelong damage is incalculable. It may have a lasting effect on your relationships, careers, quality of life, and more. Money cannot change what happened, but it can help you deal with the consequences. You may need compensation to help pay for the effects of your trauma, including but not limited to:
- Past and ongoing emotional trauma
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Anxiety disorders
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Difficulty holding employment
- Reduced quality of life
In addition to financial compensation, you may wish to pursue injunctive relief. An injunction is a court order for the defendant to stop a specific act or behavior. Some lawsuits have asked for injunctive relief to compel the dioceses to release information that they had given to the grand jury to the public and to permit reporters to review records for accuracy. The primary goal of such injunctions is to help prevent future abuse.
Who Are the Victims?
In sexual abuse cases involving minors, typically 82 percent of all sex abuse victims under 18 are female. However, in regards to the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, statistics show that there are more male than female victims. This may be partly because priests and other clergy members traditionally had more access to male youth. That statistic began to change in the 1990s. After that, access to female youth increased, and along with it, the percentage of female victims. When it comes to adult victims of clergy sex abuse, the ratios shift, and most adult victims are female.
Statutes of Limitations for Sexual Abuse of Minors: Ordinary Statute of Limitations Does Not Apply
The statute of limitations sets the time limit that a potential plaintiff has to file a particular type of civil lawsuit. For sexual abuse claims by minors, the ordinary statute of limitations does not necessarily apply. These claims often faced unusual statute of limitations problems, because the alleged abuse usually occurred when the victim was young. In the United States, only “about one-third of child-sexual-abuse victims report their allegations before adulthood.” Another third disclose well into adulthood (the median age is 52), and the rest never come forward at all. In the case of sexual abuse, the statute of limitations changes based on the age of the plaintiff when the abuse took place.
- With sexual battery involving a minor under 16 years old, there is no statute of limitations.
- Seven years after the victim reaches the age of majority. The age of majority is 18 years old in Florida.
- Four years after the victim “leaves the dependency of the abuser or 4 years from the time of the discovery of both the injury and the causal relationship between the injury and the abuse,” whichever is later.
Church authorities often ask why individuals took so long to come forward after the abuse occurred. Merely asking that question implies that the victim had some share in the blame, which is untrue. Many people do not understand the intense impact of abuse on victims. However, experts have explained the complicated and long-term effects of clergy sexual abuse. Survivors of clergy abuse were usually children at the time of the assault. They may have been subject to coercion, unable to comprehend what was happening, or unable to talk about it. Sexual assault is severely traumatic. In these cases, the situation is intensified by the revered status of the perpetrator. The child is very aware of the power inequity. In some cases, when a child immediately disclosed the abuse, parents or church authorities did not believe them. The statute of limitations with regard to these cases is changing. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, you should consult an attorney, no matter when the abuse took place.
The Long-Term Effects of Sexual Abuse
Sexually assault causes many different types of pain. It hurts the victim physically as well as emotionally. Child sexual abuse by clergy often starts with a period of grooming. This can leave the child feeling guilty, ashamed, and responsible for what happened. The child may suffer an emotional paralysis and not disclose the abuse until he or she is an adult. The effects are often long-term and can harm areas of the survivor’s life, including:
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Body image issues
- Dissociative disorders
- Sexual problems
- Relationship problems
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical treatment.
How Our Sexual Abuse Attorneys Can Help You
If you are a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, know that you are not alone. The sexual abuse of children and youth is pervasive and appalling. Despite the increased awareness of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, far too little has been done to stop it. About eight in 10 U.S. adults say the reports of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic clergy reflect “ongoing problems that are still happening” in the church. Still, every day, more courageous survivors are coming forward and taking legal action. If you are a survivor of clergy sexual assault, you are entitled to have your story heard. You have the right to seek compensation and justice for the harm caused by a sexual assault. Sexual assault is an extremely sensitive issue. However, your attorney can help you talk about this deeply personal matter. The legal process is complex. You need an experienced sexual assault attorney by your side to guide you through the process and obtain the best possible outcome for your case. Our consultations are always held in the strictest confidence. We have offices across both Florida coasts. For a free, confidential consultation with one of our dedicated, compassionate attorneys, contact us online, or you can reach Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman at 833-552-7274. Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA 833-552-7274 Online Contact Form