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How COVID-19 Closures Impact Clergy Abuse Lawsuits

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, courts across the country are taking precautions for public health and safety by closing courthouses and restricting courthouse services. In mid-March, the Mercury News reported that California’s chief justice had suspended all superior court jury trials for 60 days due to the outbreak, with local courts being allowed to conduct some business except for jury trials. Due to the closures and delays, victims of clergy sex abuse are having a harder time reaching justice. Advocates have pressed on judiciary leaders to layout rules for how courts will operate during these unprecedented times.

As the spread of the virus forces churches nationwide to shut their doors, the high cost of maintaining the buildings and the legal costs related to the clergy sex abuse scandal for the Catholic Church has caused financial stress, preventing them from compensating survivors. Last month, NPR reported that the Catholic Diocese of Erie was suspending payments from its special fund for victims of clergy sexual abuse after they claimed the pandemic had affected their finances. The diocese is noted to be one of the first where clergy abuse was quite prominent. The diocese had launched an Independent Survivors’ Reparation Program for victims of child sexual abuse by priests to receive settlement payments from the church in lieu of going through the courts. In response, the organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) condemned the diocese actions saying, “This is a hurtful and deceitful move that clearly shows that the best pathway for survivors to get justice is through the court system and not church-run programs.”

The pandemic has also delayed those accused of child sex abuse to be tried in court. The retrial for Monsignor William Lynn, the secretary for clergy in the Philadelphia archdiocese and the only church official to ever go to prison in the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal was delayed amid court shutdowns due to the outbreak. In 2012, Lynn was convicted in a trial for endangering children by concealing the crimes of priests who had been accused of child sexual abuse and putting them in positions of power where they would be able to continue harming more children. An appellate court overturned the conviction, ruling the jury may have been prejudiced, and a retrial was ordered. The retrial was set for March 2020, but because of the coronavirus, it was delayed until January 2021.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that California judicial leaders had approved new emergency rules to keep essential court services running while still protecting the people from the coronavirus. With the current health crisis going on, the legal system decided to experiment with virtual and remote technology to keep cases moving forward, including conducting arraignments, depositions, and guilty pleas using video and telephone conferencing. With California having the nation’s largest court system, this is an important step for those that have trials pending, and will hopefully slow down the delays for survivors of clergy sex abuse to achieve justice.

by John Winer

As More #MeToo Cases Come to Court, What Evidence Is “Relevant” to Prove the Plaintiffs’ Claims?

WBS’s John Winer talked to CEB about how the rules of evidence in California and most states, are set up in a way that gives alleged perpetrators an enormous advantage over accusers in terms of attacking credibility.  Read More

 

 

#MeToo in the Age of Coronavirus

Written by John Winer

The COVID-19 global crisis has completely changed the way we live our daily lives. As the number of confirmed cases continues to rise and businesses, schools, and public gathering spaces across the country remain closed, Americans continue to live life in quarantine indefinitely. Daily life as we know it has changed and life has become all about the coronavirus. As the coverage continues, certain topics are put on the back burner, such as the #MeToo movement, but it’s important to remember that many out there are still struggling, and are finding it hard to cope during this difficult time.

The same month the nation took unprecedented actions to combat the coronavirus, #MeToo activists claimed victory after Harvey Weinstein received a 23-year prison sentence, in a case that fueled the global #MeToo movement and encouraged women to speak out against sexual abuse. More than 100 women, including famous actresses, accused the former movie mogul of sexual misconduct dating back decades, fueling the movement against sexual abuse and harassment. Weeks after his conviction, Weinstein tested positive for the coronavirus at a state prison in New York while serving his sentence. After recovering, Reuters reported that he was charged with a third sexual assault case in Los Angeles.

Coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has also overshadowed the 2020 presidential campaign, which might be good news for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who was recently accused of sexual assault by a former staffer. In interviews with The Associated Press, the staffer alleged the assault occurred in 1993 in a Capitol Hill office building. A recent New York Times article detailed the commitment the Democratic party expressed in believing and supporting women who come forward as sexual assault survivors after the #MeToo movement gained momentum and questioned if Democrats should regard the presidential nominee as a sexual predator for the sake of consistency.

The pandemic is also presenting barriers to conduct investigations of sexual misconduct on college campuses. A report by the HuffPost states that Title IX processes are being delayed across the country, leaving many survivors wondering if they can achieve justice during the pandemic. Some colleges are finding it impossible to hold in-person hearings with campus closures and shelter-in-place orders issued by state governments. While these are unprecedented times, schools need to be transparent and need to prioritize giving survivors as much autonomy in the Title IX process as possible.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has also caused a spike in domestic violence due to the current stay at home orders issued. According to a recent report released by NBC News, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. saw domestic violence cases rise by 35% in recent weeks. Experts claim that as city and state leaders ordered people to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19, domestic abuse became more prevalent. Many victims’ rights advocates warned that there would be a spike in abuse as schools shut down and people lost their jobs.

Although our main focus should be on keeping ourselves safe and healthy during these unprecedented times, it’s important to remember that survivors of sexual assault are also experiencing the deep impact of it all. Those who were seeking support are now facing challenges getting the therapy they need, and advocates are fighting to hold federal and state policymakers accountable to make sure everything is being done to help survivors during this time.

The Challenges of a Remote Workplace

As the number of COVID-19 infections hits the million mark worldwide, people are being told to stay home, and companies and employers around the world are facing unique challenges and issues. CNN reports that more than 700,000 jobs were lost in the last month alone. Those lucky enough to still have employment have been asked to work remotely as businesses shut their doors to comply with the stay-at-home order issued by governor Gavin Newson. A large percentage of companies have come up with a strategy to move their employees to online companies such as Zoom, Microsoft and Google, which offer free programs that can be used for video conferencing meetings, audio conferencing and webinars. But there are concerns that these programs have security, privacy and harassment issues that could leave its growing audience at risk.

With schools closed and people across the country working from home, the use of video-chatting has skyrocketed during the pandemic. Teachers, executives, government officials and families have flocked to programs like Zoom, which have become vital for work and life during the pandemic. Although helpful, Zoom has also been met with controversy as trolls have also taken advantage of the program, sneaking their way into meetings, online gatherings and lectures, exposing security and privacy issues. According to NBC News, as teachers and professors move their lectures and other educational activities move to video-chatting tools, “Zoom-bombing” has become another form of harassment. A 14-year-old girl from a Modern Orthodox high school was attending online class when some boys “zoom-bombed” the system and began yelling anti-Semitic slurs. After receiving several reports, the FBI issued a warning that some users reported some of their calls have been hijacked by trolls who bombard them with racist attacks and pornographic images. After receiving multiple complaints, the founder of Zoom apologized to its user and promised to devote all of its engineering resources to fixing the privacy and security issues.

According to the Business Insider, companies have turned to surveillance software to make sure they can see that employees are getting work done while working from home. Digital surveillance software provides screen monitoring and productivity metrics, such as the number of emails sent, keeps track of how much time you’re spending browsing online and what websites you visit. Critics claim it’s susceptible to privacy concerns, especially if the software remains active after work hours. Some companies are turning to programs like Sneek, which stays on throughout the workday and features constantly-updating photos of workers taken through their laptop camera every one to five minutes. There have been concerns over employers being able to essentially spy on employees while they’re at home, but the company states the program is meant to create a connected office dynamic.

After the pandemic is over the workplace may never go back to being the same. Businesses may change policies and implement a remote workforce, and employees will have to develop new habits, such as keeping documentation of their work, tracking their emails and learning how to communicate via webcam with coworkers. Managers will have to normalize video-conferencing and video-chats, and companies such as Zoom will have to continue improving their technology and cybersecurity for the safety of its users.

Written by John Winer

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