Over the past decade, survivors of sexual abuse around the world have stepped forward with allegations that their abusers were Roman Catholic Church clergy. Many have told disturbing stories of abuse that occurred while they were still children. The wave of allegations has spurred a movement toward holding individual clergy, and the church leadership and institutions that enabled them, to account. In jurisdictions across the country, including in Illinois, New York, and California, survivors have sought that accountability through civil legal actions for damages and other relief.
The website BishopAccountability.org has collected and published records of allegations against Roman Catholic clergy around the world. The website identifies parishes where priests alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct once served.
Clergy abuse survivors often have questions about how the civil legal process may help them achieve their goals of obtaining truth, justice, and accountability. The compassionate, knowledgeable clergy abuse injury lawyers at Winer, Burritt & Tillis, LLP, are here to help answer them. Contact us today to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation.
Obtaining Accountability for Clergy Abuse Through the Courts
There are many ways to seek accountability for clergy abuse. Survivors play a role in criminal prosecutions of their abusers. They organize fellow survivors. They advocate for change within the church and outside of it.
Survivors nationwide have also found accountability through the courts. A civil legal action against individual clergy members and church institutions can give survivors the opportunity to investigate and shine a light on church practices that fostered clergy abuse.
In most jurisdictions, including California, survivors of clergy sexual abuse have the right to sue to recover damages and other relief from their abusers and anyone who facilitated the abuse. Every jurisdiction has its own window of time in which survivors can file those claims. In California, the time limits vary depending on how old the victim was at the time of the abuse. Jurisdictions including New York and California have proposed laws to expand the time frames for pursuing claims of childhood sexual abuse.
What a Lawsuit for Clergy Abuse Can Accomplish
The wounds of clergy abuse do not heal easily. Survivors often carry the physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual scars clergy abuse inflicts for their entire lives. A civil lawsuit for money damages cannot take away survivors’ pain, but it can help them find much-needed support.
A civil action may also help further goals of preventing further clergy abuse. Many jurisdictions, including California, allow for the recovery of punitive damages in cases of intentional harm. These damages serve to punish and deter sexual misconduct. Courts also award injunctive relief in some cases, which essentially amounts to a court order that directs wrongdoers to take preventive actions so that clergy abuse does not recur.
Survivors of clergy abuse have filed suit individually, while others have joined together in group litigation. Whatever the form a lawsuit takes, the types of monetary and other relief they may recover are more or less the same.
Of course, a positive outcome is never a guarantee in any lawsuit. However, many recent lawsuits against the church and individual abusers have demonstrated it is possible for survivors to recover substantial amounts of money and to achieve meaningful other forms of relief that help to prevent clergy abuse.
When Clergy Abuse Claims Must Be Filed
Time limits for filing clergy sexual abuse claims vary from state to state, so please make sure to consult an experienced clergy abuse attorney when considering filing a legal action against individual clergy or the church. Under California law, for example, survivors of clergy sexual abuse that happened when the plaintiff was over 18 must presently file a claim no later than:
- 10 years from the date of the last act, attempted act, or assault with the intent to commit an act, of sexual assault; or
- Three years from the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that an injury or illness resulted from an act, attempted act, or assault with the intent to commit an act, of sexual assault.
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse that happened when the survivor was under 18, in contrast, can pursue a claim until the later of:
- Eight years from the date the plaintiff turns 18; or
- Three years from the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after turning 18 was caused by the sexual abuse.
Legislators Propose Laws to Expand and Revive Childhood Sexual Abuse Claims
Keep in mind, however, that the time limits for filing a clergy sexual abuse claim may not be the same in your state. Additionally, movements are afoot in legislatures across the nation to expand the time limits for some claims of childhood clergy abuse. If these efforts succeed, the number of survivors of clergy sexual abuse who could have viable claims to pursue in court could expand dramatically.
For example, Assembly Bill 218 is currently pending in the California legislature. Under its proposed terms, surviors of childhood clergy abuse would have until they turned 40 years old to file claims against individual abusers and, equally important, against church entities that enabled the abuse. In addition, similar to a recent law enacted in New York, AB 218 would create a three-year time window in which to revive claims alleging childhood clergy abuse that have otherwise expired under current California laws. AB 218 would also create treble damage liability for anyone who covered up childhood clergy abuse, a potentially powerful statutory weapon against church entities that turned a blind eye to clergy misconduct.
Clergy Abuse Attorneys Serving Clients Nationwide
Winer, Burritt & Tillis, LLP, is a California-based law firm that serves clients and consults with attorneys across the nation. We believe survivors of clergy abuse should have the opportunity to seek accountability in the manner of their choosing.
To speak with our compassionate, dedicated clergy abuse attorneys about your legal options for pursuing accountability through the courts, call us at (800) 652-6137 or visit us online to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation.