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