The Catholic Church has spent nearly $4 billion on lawsuits since the 1980s. Recent high-profile cases have kept the issue of church-sanctioned sexual abuse in the headlines. As a nation, we are grappling with questions like: “How does this happen?” and “How can we stop the abuse from continuing to happen?”
As Pope Francis himself put it: “The failure of ecclesial authorities—bishops, religious superiors, priests and others—to adequately address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.”
The best way to stop the cycle of abuse is to ensure the most powerful members of an organization get the message that sexual abuse cannot and should not be tolerated. But can you sue the bishops, the diocese, or even the pope for the actions of a priest? If you or your child have been sexually abused by clergy, there are multiple legal angles to pursue when it comes to who to sue for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Who Is Liable for Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church?
In cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, one may be wondering who is to blame. Holding the individual priests legally accountable for their wrongdoing is one approach. Under California law, criminal prosecutors can file charges against priests within one year of the victim reporting the abuse to authorities, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred, but there are still many survivors who fall outside this window. What about instances where church administrators willfully moved known sex offenders into a parish to start the cycle of abuse all over again?
Surely, at least some liability should be ascribed to those at the top of the command chain—those who have the power to enact a change in canonical law, which may actually impact the way child sexual abuse is handled within dioceses. Ultimately, it’s not just about compensation for innocence and lives lost; it’s about changing the culture of secrecy and abetting pedophiles that trickles down through church law from the Vatican itself.
Past lawsuits involving the Catholic Church have successfully held other third parties liable, such as:
- Other clergy members who worked closely with the abuser
- Bishops whose job it was to oversee the clergy and act as “a shepherd to the flock”
- Dioceses, which carry the power to supervise, not to mention liability insurance
Can You Sue The Vatican For Sexual Abuse?
In the past, it has been difficult to hold the Vatican accountable for sexual abuse accusations that transcend borders. According to National Catholic Reporter, efforts to hold the Vatican (and even the pope himself) accountable have been dismissed by federal courts in Oregon, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Texas. In 2005, a Texas judge ruled that the pope was immune from litigation for conspiracy as a “head of state.”
However, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman in Portland, Oregon decided that the Vatican could, in fact, be sued on the grounds that priests are considered employees of the Vatican. This ruling was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in 2012.
The case against the Vatican for their liability in tolerating rampant, widespread child sexual abuse is heating up. In California, a 52-year-old retired police officer and former marine filed a November 2018 lawsuit against the Vatican—not for monetary compensation, but for the release of documents containing the identities of known sexual abusers in the Catholic Church worldwide. He is suing on the basis of public nuisance, private nuisance, violation of Business and Professions Code 17200, and violation of a customary international law of human rights.
Another class action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. this past November. Attorneys filed the legal complaint on behalf of six victims of “endemic, systemic, rampant and pervasive rape and sexual abuse” who claim the Church “robbed them of their childhood, youth, innocence, virginity, families, jobs, finances, assets—in short, their lives.” The individuals named in the suit hail from California, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Mandatory Reporting Laws for Sexual Abuse in California
California Penal Code Section 11165 also known as the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act makes it mandatory for state professionals to report known or suspected child abuse within 36 hours. Child abuse, as described in the Penal Code, includes not only physical violence but sexual abuse as well. Having reasonable suspicion of abuse is enough to warrant a report to the police.
The list of mandatory reporters includes educators, medical staff, social workers, firefighters, police officers, daycare employees, counselors, computer technicians, camp administrators, and clergy. The one exception is if a priest learns of the abuse during a penitential confession, reporting is not required.
A report of sexual abuse can be submitted to law enforcement confidentially, but anyone who fails to do so may be charged with the misdemeanor crime of “impeding the creation of a mandatory report.” Criminal penalties under PC 11166 include up to six months in jail and maximum fines of $1,000. In addition to facing criminal charges, sexual abusers can also be sued in civil court for the recovery of damages related to the physical and emotional suffering of the abused.
California Nuisance Laws
Even if the statute of limitations for pressing criminal charges has passed, survivors of sexual abuse can still seek litigation. When the statute of limitations for criminal charges ran out on sexual abuse taking place from 1978-1980, a local sexual abuse survivor filed a civil nuisance lawsuit against 12 California bishops, more than two dozen accused sexual predator priests, and the Archdiocese of Chicago.
The suit—filed in Los Angeles on October 2, 2018—alleges a civil conspiracy among church officials to cover up sexual assault by clergy members by moving known abusers around the country, where they are permitted to continue working and living among the religious order. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles was allegedly a safe haven for 309 child-molesting priests, including 37 transferred out of state to avoid criminal investigation, according to a voluminous report compiled by the plaintiff’s attorney. The sexual abuse survivor says his lawsuit is aimed at getting clerics at the top to “come clean and tell the truth.”
State nuisance laws are designed to curb behavior that negatively affects the community. The legal definition of a public nuisance is someone who “acts injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses, or in obstruction to the free use of property.” This means that a person committing child abuse could be viewed as a public nuisance in California. California Penal Codes 372 and 373a make it a crime to: maintain or commit a public nuisance; willfully fail to perform any legal duty to remove a public nuisance; or to allow a public nuisance to remain on property that you own or control. Misdemeanor crimes under these codes are punishable by probation, up to six months in jail, and fines of up to $1,000.
Contact Civil Sexual Abuse Attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn
Criminal lawsuits may only hold a single person accountable for an act of sexual abuse, but civil law allows for many others to be held responsible. There are many different law doctrines attorneys can pursue to hold leaders in the church, as well as larger organizations, accountable for their actions and inactions. For this reason, it is imperative that you find a law firm with particular expertise in litigating sexual abuse cases relative to the church. An experienced sexual abuse attorney will know exactly who to sue for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Large organizations may try to shield themselves from liability but the experienced civil attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn have what is required to prevail in a civil lawsuit against a powerful and well-funded institution such as the Catholic Church.
Whether you’re advocating for your child or are an adult seeking closure for abuse suffered years ago, Lewis & Llewellyn has the experience, grit, and compassion to help you obtain justice and maximum compensation. Contact our team online for support and guidance to see you through this emotional time, or call +1 (415) 800-0590 to schedule an appointment with an advocate today.
DISCLAIMER: The information in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this blog or on this website should be construed as legal advice from Lewis & Llewellyn LLP. Neither your receipt of information from this website, nor your use of this website to contact Lewis & Llewellyn LLP creates an attorney-client relationship between you and the firm or any of its lawyers. No reader of this website should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this website without seeking the appropriate legal advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s jurisdiction.