Clergy Abuse FAQ
Many victims of sexual abuse are filing civil lawsuits for compensation in the years or decades after the event occurred to help in the healing process. Many of these cases date back to the mid-1980s when the first reports of clergy with a trusted power of authority over children allegedly sexually assaulting minors under their care.
Only recently has the Roman Catholic Church required mandatory reporting of sexual assault even if the allegation is only a suspicion of harm. With recent legislative changes in the statute of limitations laws, more older sexual abuse victims are coming forward to hold religious sexual predators financially accountable for their horrific acts years ago.
View our Jehovah’s Witness Sex Abuse Lawsuit page to learn more about those specific cases.
A personal injury attorney has answered some of the most frequently asked questions involving clergy sex abuse below.
What is Clergy Sex Abuse of Children?
Thousands of reverends and clergy from the Catholic Church and other religious organizations have been accused of sexually abusing minors throughout the United States over the last seven decades. Many religion-affiliated sexual predators lived under the radar for years without any oversight or supervision from law enforcement or religious authorities.
In the last few years, American Roman Catholic dioceses had been forced to publish the names of priests, nuns, brothers, sisters, teachers, deacons, and others who have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. Many of these cases range from unwanted touching to forced rape and sodomy involving underage children and young adults.
In many communities, law enforcement has handled clergy sexual molestation differently than predators not associated with a religious organization, often leaving church officials responsible for dealing with the crime.
What is a Clergy Sex Abuse Lawsuit?
A Pennsylvania grand jury released an eye-opening report in August 2018 dealing with the Roman Catholic Church's extensive cover-up of child sex assault cases. Many clerics, brothers, sisters, teachers, and other religious clerics were sexually abusing children in Pennsylvania catholic diocese, including Allentown, Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton.
The Pennsylvania grand jury report identified the church's lack of protecting children against abusers claiming that had the church taken any action against complaints, the child could have been spared.
Instead, church officials tended to relocate the religious, sexual predator to another church or released them from their religious responsibilities without ever warning the public of their criminal behavior.
The released report opened the floodgates of concerned religious congregations, child protection advocates, and government agencies, wanting more answers about what Catholic Church leaders had done for decades in hiding sexual predators hired to provide religious interaction with parishioners.
In response, state legislators throughout the U.S. begin changing laws to extend the time the child sexual abuse victim could file a claim against the predator and others responsible for the crime and cover-up. Many victims of child sex assault have filed child sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church, resulting in multi-billion-dollar settlements.
Am I Eligible to File a Clergy Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Against the Catholic Church?
In the last two decades, the Catholic Church dioceses throughout the United States have agreed to multimillion-dollar settlements to resolve thousands of cases involving child sex assault survivors violated by priests, nuns, bishops, brothers, sisters, cardinals, laypeople, teachers, and others.
Were You a Victim of Clergy Sex Abuse by a Religious Organization Member, Like Those Who Work for the Catholic Church?
You are likely eligible to file a clergy sexual abuse lawsuit to compensate for your damages. The amount you receive will be based on your case's unique circumstances, the length of time since the abuse occurred, and other contributing factors, including who might be listed as a defendant in the case (predator, the church, etc.).
What Percentage of Child Sexual Abuse by Clergy is Reported?
According to studies referenced by the National Institute of Health, most child sexual abuse cases go unreported, leaving the victim to deal with their pain and shame in silence. Their study revealed that 50% of all sexual predators associated with the Catholic Church had been reported to be thirty-five years old or younger when the first incidents of church sexual abuse occurred.
Less than 7% of the religious leaders were sexually assaulted, physically abuse, or emotionally traumatized children. However, approximately 20% of the accused priest, cardinals, bishops, and other religious leaders had alcohol and substance abuse problems, and approximately half of those were impaired by alcohol or drugs when they sexually assaulted children.
Who Do Female Clergy Sexual Predators Abuse?
Though women sexually assaulting children rarely occurs, some major US studies find that approximately 6% of sexual abusers were female in reported cases. That percentage drops to between three and 5% of cases involving sexual assault of underage minors eleven years old or younger.
Some of the reported cases involved a female clergy member sexually abusing a child with a male accomplice. Typically, boys are more likely to be abused by women than girls.
Also, the type of offense the female sexual predator commits is different than male predators victimizing boys in sexual misconduct that includes:
- Inappropriate touching
- Digital penetration
- Oral-genital contact
- Sexual intercourse
The study also showed that many female predators had a history of severe family problems and poly-victimization. Reports reveal that males tend to sexually abuse children due to a desire for domination and control, whereas female predators sexually assault children due to feeling they have lost control and intrusive sexual thoughts.
How Many Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse in Big Brothers Big Sisters Were Perpetrated by Clergy?
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America work together in community partnerships, including religious organizations, to make a life-changing impact on local children. The national Brothers Big Sisters program was built on a faith-based approach of finding adult mentors to help children, including clerics.
However, only a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of child sexual abuse cases involving Big Brothers Big Sisters involved Catholic Church priests, cardinals, bishops, nuns, teachers, and coaches.
Must the Clergy Report Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect Regardless of How They Learned About It?
US Government laws mandate that every cleric must report child abuse, neglect, and maltreatment in every state and the District of Columbia, North Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Guam and twenty-eight states in the union have specific laws that mandate clergy and other professionals to report any known or suspected child neglect or abuse incident.
Some faces, including the Catholic Church, orders the clergy to maintain confidentiality between the religious leader and congregation involved in pastoral communications. The church identifies confidentiality as a "clergy-penitent privilege," referring to the penitent person as a clergy member.
While this privilege can be strong as the confidentiality between an attorney and a client, privileged communications about suspected abuse or neglect are exempt from protected pastoral communication.
Many states deny privileged communication outright involving child sex assault, including West Virginia, New Hampshire, Guam, North Carolina, Texas, Rhode Island, and Oklahoma.
Should Clergy Who Fail to Report Abuse Heard During Confession be Charged?
So far, US federal statutes have yet to hold religious leaders criminally accountable for failing to report a child sexual predator who confessed their sins in the confessional. The thousands of cases recently exposed in the Catholic Church were hidden for decades when church officials knew that a priest or another member of the congregation sexually assaulted minors.
United Kingdom royal commissioners say that there is evidence that cases involving child sexual abuse disclosures in the confessional were never passed on to proper authorities. The Royal Commission in the UK wants to charge the religious predator with a criminal offense if they fail to report child sex assault.
How Many Clergy Sexual Assault Cases Have Been Filed in Illinois?
Currently, the Bishop Accountability website lists more than 700 clergy members on their list of accused priests, brothers, sisters, Bishops, Cardinals, nuns, and other church officials with ties of sexual misconduct with children. Some of these cases date back seven decades ago, involving victims that are now deceased or in their late 80s.
The totality of cases is almost immeasurable, where many religious, sexual predators had multiple victims from different generations over decades. In 2018, Illinois Attorney General Madigan stated that the church's recent release of the names of 185 religious clerics credibly accused of sexual assault was a number far lower than what her office uncovered.
Many cases get to be filed due to the time limit of the statute of limitations. However, the changes in law, including the Child Victims Act, have allowed new opportunities to file a lawsuit, even if the assault occurred decades ago.
Why is Clergy Sex Abuse So Common?
For decades, society has blamed the Roman Catholic Church's rules on priest celibacy as the leading cause of child sex assault involving parishioners. However, evidence is shown there may be other factors that allow sexual predators to remain active in the religious community.
Many psychologically ill men and women become Catholic leaders due to:
- Improperly screened candidates entering seminaries
- Bishops downplaying, dismissing, or ignoring accusations of priest sexual misconduct
- Sexual abuse crimes unreported to District Attorney's offices and civil authorities
- A gross misunderstanding of the effects of severe abuse
Protecting the sexually abusive priest's privileges over a victim's pastoral care for years, the Catholic Church chose to relocate a priest accused of sexual misconduct and instead relocated the religious leader between parishes where they continue sexually assault new victims. Church officials often fear litigation or unwilling to confront the priest to discuss their sexual impropriety.
How Many Non-Catholic Clergy are Accused of Child Abuse?
While the Catholic Church appears to own the lion's share of sexual abusers among their priests, brothers, sisters, Bishops, Cardinals, nuns, other religious organizations also have concerns involving child sexual assault.
Other religious denominations involving virtually every faith have child sexual predators among their midst, even though they receive little media coverage. Sex scandals have occurred in nearly every religion, including Baptists, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Methodists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witness, Jews and Protestants.
Some of the religious leaders accused of sexual misconduct include ministers, church elders, deacons, youth pastors, coaches, teachers, church marriage counselors, mentors, and laypeople. Many victims are filing church sex abuse lawsuits against authorities with a trusted position who instigated an inappropriate sexual relationship during their childhood.
Other adults not usually associated with religion have also been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with youths and other organizations, including the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and others. View our page about Mormon Church sexual abuse lawsuits to learn more about those specific cases.
How Long Does It Take a Victim to Work Through Clergy Sex Abuse?
Reports show that up to one-third of all women and 20% of all men were victims of childhood sexual abuse. Many of those were victimized by religious leaders, including priests, bishops, cardinals, nuns, brothers, sisters, teachers, coaches. The number is likely higher because sexual abuse often does not involve inappropriate touching or other forms of non-physical sexual molestation.
The emotional trauma and social impact children experience after being sexually abused by an adult can last a lifetime.
Some studies of shown that the long-term effects of childhood sexual assault can lead to:
- Eating disorders
- Somatic concerns
- Dissociative patterns
- Relationship problems
- Sexual issues
Many child sex abuse survivors are challenged with externalizing what occurred and instead turn inward, thinking negative thoughts about themselves. Without intervention, the ongoing depression could lead to suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide) and disturbed eating patterns.
Victims of child sex abuse tend to experience more self-destructive behaviors than others. Many sexual assault survivors harmed by the clergy will develop severe body image problems related to a sense of ugliness, feel dirty, and dissatisfaction with their body's appearance.
In time, the victim develops severe obesity through eating disorders and other medical concerns, including pelvic pain, gastrointestinal problems, difficulty swallowing, and headaches.
What Has the Vatican Said About Clergy Sexual Abuse?
For decades, the Vatican has issued a long list of conflicting steps in guiding church leaders on what to do when a priest has been accused of sexual misconduct. Years ago, the process was established to relocate abusive religious predators, transferring them to other parishes within the diocese, state, or country.
Recently, Pope Francis published a handbook outlining investigative and reporting procedures for clergy members and church lawyers on handling allegations of sexual abuse of minors. The official Vatican (vademecum) document was published as a tool on how to conduct sexual allegation probes correctly, involving priests, deacons, and predators.
By May 2019, Pope Francis issued a Vatican apostolic letter instructing church leaders to report any suspicion or knowledge of sexual abuse to the proper authorities according to local laws.
Fortunately, the Pope's instructions did not have a condition to report incidents if it was only legally required. The instructions clearly say that "even in cases where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so, the ecclesiastical authority should make a report to the competent civil authorities if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts."
However, the Vatican document does not mandate the cleric to report the sexual assault of an underage child or those physically/mentally infirm if they learn of it from the sexual predator posse's confession.
Instead, the Pope uses words like "should" rather than "must" when requiring them to report what happened to appropriate authorities to ensure the predators are held criminally accountable for what they did to their victims.
What is Clergy Sexual Abuse of Power?
Many society's members, including medical professionals, civil authorities, and religious leaders, have a trusted power of authority over others. Those in charge must use that power only to ensure the health and safety of others.
Many clergy members have been accused of abusing their power by sexually assaulting underage minors and young adults under their care. This broken trust not only victimizes the sexual abuse survivor physically but corrupts the bond between the child and their God.
What Happens When Clergy Sexual Abuse is Reported?
Most cases involving child sex abuse among the clergy are first reported to church officials, hoping immediate action will be taken. Unfortunately, until recently, the church has taken a different view and instead chose to relocate the priest and never report the allegation.
Recent guidance from the Vatican, Pope Francis, and the Holy See have helped clarify how accusations of sexual misconduct among the clergy must be investigated and reported. The Pope instructs church leaders to contact civil authorities any time there is known or suspected sexual abuse involving minors by priests, bishops, cardinals, nuns, brothers, sisters, deacons, nuns, and other religious leaders.
When the cases are ultimately reported to local authorities, an investigation will determine if a crime has been committed. Unfortunately, many of these cases occurred years or decades ago, or the only evidence remaining is the victim's statement.
Even if the local District Attorney's Office fails to file charges against the sexual predator due to restrictive state laws, the victim can still file a sexual abuse lawsuit seeking compensation from their abuser, church leaders, and the Catholic Church for their failure to protect the victim when they were a child being sexually assaulted by a church employee.
Do I Need a Personal Injury Attorney to Handle My Sexual Abuse Lawsuits?
You will probably need to use an attorney to file a lawsuit. Catholic Church sex abuse cases are highly complicated, or many victims of clergy assault or harm decades ago, well past the statute of limitations.
Many survivors will file a childhood sex abuse lawsuit seeking compensation for their damages when sexually assaulted by clergy members decades ago.
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report identifying Catholic Church leaders who had purposely covered up childhood sex abuse cases involving clergy members. Some of these cases involved religious clerics and other clergy members who had died decades ago.
In response, state legislators throughout the U.S. changed their laws, extending the statute of limitations on the length of time abuse survivors could file child sexual abuse lawsuits. Some catholic dioceses created a compensation fund where Catholic Church abuse survivors could receive compensation in cases that lacked evidence.
However, the Roman Catholic Church has paid out billions of dollars in recent years to victims from compensation funds, selling off assets to pay victims of clergy abuse. The Catholic Church's diminishing assets and the growing number of sexual abuse cases make it harder for sexual assault victims to handle a case without legal representation.