Few actions damage a young person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing more profoundly than clergy sexual abuse. The perpetrators of this horrific crime deserve to face the full weight of the criminal justice system. They and their employers—church institutions that have often turned a blind eye to clerical abusers within their ranks—owe survivors a legal and moral debt to make right those wrongs. In many parts of the country, however, achieving criminal and/or civil justice for clergy sexual abuse has been complicated by out-of-date laws that do not account for the difficulties of coming forward with a clergy sexual abuse allegation. Fortunately, Vermont law has avoided many of those hurdles.
Americans are by now well aware of the widespread clergy sexual abuse allegations against the Roman Catholic Church around the world, including here in Vermont. In August 2019, the Diocese of Burlington released a report that identified forty (40) Vermont priests against whom “credible and substantiated” allegations of sexual abuse had been made since 1950. Nationwide, a broad swath of faith communities has recently confronted the epidemic of clergy sexual abuse, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church, as well as some American Jewish and Muslim congregations.
Vermont has relatively strong laws compared to many other states that protect clergy sexual abuse survivors by giving them powerful tools to take action against their abusers and anyone who facilitated the abuse. Vermont law also gives prosecutors the tools they need to hold perpetrators of clergy sexual abuse criminally accountable.
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman are affiliated law firms that represent survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We are a team of compassionate, dedicated trial lawyers who have committed our careers to fighting on behalf of innocent victims of other people’s wrongful actions. We invite anyone in Vermont with an interest in exploring the options available for taking legal action against clergy sexual abuse to contact us to schedule a free, confidential consultation with us. We’re here to help.
Our Law Practice Representing Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman have a nationwide law practice representing people injured and traumatized because of someone else’s wrongdoing. Our reputation is that of a team of attorneys who have the experience, drive, and know-how to take on the most difficult, complex, emotionally-challenging cases, and achieve justice for our clients.
We put our maximum effort into every representation we take on here at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman, but we are particularly dedicated to helping brave survivors of clergy sexual abuse seek accountability from their abusers and from church institutions that facilitated (or turned a blind eye) to that abuse. Clients of our clergy sexual abuse practice show incredible bravery in coming forward, and we feel we owe them every ounce of dedication we have to give. We put the highest priority on listening with a compassionate ear to our clients’ stories, and to shaping legal strategies that meet our clients’ needs and hopes after they make the brave decision to step forward.
Our affiliated firms have an impressive track record of achieving significant results, with millions of dollars in recoveries to our name. Of course, there is no guarantee of a successful outcome in any particular case, and we know our clients who have survived clergy sexual abuse sometimes feel hesitant about coming forward when the result of a legal action is uncertain. That is why we place an emphasis on understanding what our clients want to achieve and on giving them compassionate, sensible, and sound legal advice to help them take the steps that are right for them. We never pressure our clients into lawsuits or settlements.
About Vermont Statutes of Limitation on Claims of Clergy Sexual Abuse
As tragically common as clergy sexual abuse is, and despite the growing public awareness of its toll, survivors continue to have difficulty coming forward. Advocates for sexual abuse survivors report that many fear it has been so long since their abuse by a clergy member occurred that they will never be able to achieve meaningful accountability in court. In many parts of America, they tragically have good reason to doubt the effectiveness of legal institutions in confronting clergy sexual abuse. Laws in many states have made it difficult for survivors to step forward by having unrealistic time limits in which victims must file their claims.
Fortunately, since the late 1980s, Vermont law has provided for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, including those victimized by members of the clergy, to take legal action for damages:
A civil action brought by any person for recovery of damages for injury suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse shall be commenced within six years of the act alleged to have caused the injury or condition, or six years of the time the victim discovered that the injury or condition was caused by that act, whichever period expires later. The victim need not establish which act in a series of continuing sexual abuse or exploitation incidents caused the injury.
Reading the text of the law, you might think that someone under 18 victimized by a member of the clergy has to bring a claim against their abuser or a church institution while that person is still a minor. But that is not the case. Vermont law also provides that the statute of limitations is “tolled” (that is, the clock is stopped) while a person is a minor.
So, the net effect of these laws is that a person who suffered sexual abuse as a minor can bring an action either no later than their 24th birthday or no later than six years after they “discover” that an “injury or condition” (including mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD in adulthood) was caused by past sexual abuse. This combination of “tolling” and the ability to bring a claim after “discovering” an injury caused by abuse often allows Vermont survivors of clergy sexual abuse to seek justice on their own timetable, not one set by an arbitrary law.
Vermont law also gives prosecutors ample opportunity to seek criminal charges against sexual abusers of children. There is no statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges for aggravated sexual assault of a child, and a forty year statute of limitations for other sex offenses against children.
Seeking Accountability in Cases of Vermont Clergy Sexual Abuse
The team at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman understand that clergy sexual abuse survivors have varying reasons for coming forward with their claims. Some have arrived at a point in their lives when they feel they need to confront a past trauma. Some want to see criminal justice done. Most, if not all, want to help prevent sexual misconduct against other innocent victims.
There is no right or wrong reason for coming forward with an allegation of sexual abuse against a clergy member and/or a church institution that turned a blind eye to abuse. Likewise, there is no single correct way to pursue justice and accountability under Vermont law. Rather, Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman lawyers often present clients with a range of options, which may include:
Civil Lawsuits for Compensation
As described above, Vermont survivors of clergy sexual abuse have the opportunity to file a civil action for money damages in Vermont courts against both their abusers and any church institution that may have enabled that abuse (such as by transferring a clergy member already suspected of misconduct into a new parish, where misconduct continued). Compensation rarely brings “closure,” to be sure. But it can help our clients gain financial stability and pay for services (such as mental health counseling) to assist them in confronting a painful past.
The types and amounts of damages a survivor of Vermont clergy sexual abuse may recover through a civil action can vary widely from case to case. And as we said above, there are never any guarantees. At Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman, our team works closely with clients to build the strongest possible case proving the maximum amount of damages potentially available.
Vermont courts, like most courts in the United States, also frequently can order church institutions to take proactive measures to prevent future incidents of sexual misconduct by clergy. In addition to seeking monetary damages, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in Vermont may have the ability to ask the court to issue this sort of order, known as “injunctive relief.” The Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman team works with clients to determine whether seeking injunctive relief fits within their hopes and goals for coming forward with an allegation against a clergy member or church institution.
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse do not get to decide whether criminal charges are filed against their abuser. That is a decision for a Vermont district attorney. Still, it is often the case that a prosecution cannot proceed without the survivor participating as a witness for the state; which means that a survivor has a choice about whether or not to engage in the criminal legal process against the perpetrator of their abuse.
As above, there is no right or wrong choice. Some survivors relish the chance to testify against their abuser. Others prefer to avoid the witness stand at all costs. That is their choice. At Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman, we support our clients by giving them sound, straightforward legal advice regarding the decision about whether to participate in the prosecution of their abuser, and by working diligently to protect their interests no matter which choice they make.
The Process of Making a Clergy Sexual Abuse Allegation in Vermont
If you are reading this, we do not have to tell you how difficult the decision about whether to step forward with an allegation of clergy sexual abuse can be. It is a choice that every survivor has the right to make in their own time, and in the manner they believe is best. Our only advice is to encourage survivors thinking of coming forward to have a strong emotional support system in place first, including the services of a mental health professional.
That is because, as lawyers for a courageous survivor of clergy sexual abuse, our role is sometimes to ask difficult questions and to unearth painful memories. We do this with the utmost compassion and respect for our clients, while also knowing that our clients’ best chance of succeeding in a legal action is for us to have a clear understanding of the abuse they suffered and how it has affected the course of their lives.
Having said this, we also want to emphasize that anything you tell a Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA or Sibley Dolman attorney about a potential allegation of clergy sexual abuse will always remain strictly confidential until you (and only you) choose otherwise. Our job is to provide you with compassionate, thorough, knowledgeable legal services to help you make the best decisions for you about your legal options for holding clergy members and church institutions accountable for abuse.
Attorneys for Survivors of Vermont Clergy Sexual Abuse
Vermont survivors of clergy sexual abuse who feel they are ready to explore their legal options for seeking justice and accountability often have a lot of questions. At Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman, we are here to help answer those questions as best we can. It is the least we can do to honor the bravery it takes for survivors to confront clergy sexual abuse.
If you have questions about taking legal action in Vermont against a clergy member or church institution, then the experienced clergy sexual abuse attorneys at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman want to hear from you. We have offices on both coasts of Florida if you happen to be visiting, but you can also reach out to us online or by phone at 833-552-7274 to schedule your confidential, free, no-obligation consultation.