Clergy sexual abuse constitutes a grave breach of trust, leading to profound physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma for victims. Studies indicate that children who suffer such abuse experience intense “spiritual devastation” and “deep spiritual confusion.” Survivors of clergy sexual abuse frequently perceive their abusers as “representatives of God,” which can cause them to feel punished or abandoned by God. This perception further exacerbates the already considerable harm inflicted.
Clergy sexual abuse occurs when an individual in a religious leadership position, such as a pastor, priest, or other clergy member, exploits their position of trust and authority to sexually harass, exploit, or engage in sexual activity with a congregant. Clergy harassment manifests in various forms, including “sexualizing conversations (including on the phone, through social media or email), asking for or transmitting unwanted sexual images/text, touching or hugging people who do not want to be touched, pushing for sexual involvement, creating pressure and hostility when boundaries are set, using sexual language and jokes, pressing or rubbing up against a woman, or invading personal space when boundaries are set, using sexual language and jokes, or invading personal space.” Sexual activity may involve “touching sexual organs (over or under clothing), kissing, oral sex, masturbation, intercourse, and rape.”
Survivors frequently grapple with a conflicting mix of emotions, such as faith, betrayal, anger, and confusion, which complicates a survivor’s decision to come forward and report the abuse. These feelings are further exacerbated when religious institutions respond to abuse allegations by prioritizing their reputation and protecting the perpetrator over the well-being of the reporting victim(s) and potential future victims. For example, the church may respond by concealing information regarding the abuse, quietly transferring perpetrators to different churches, silencing victims through intimidation and shaming tactics, and minimizing or denying the harm inflicted.
The US Department of Justice’s research highlights the long-term psychological impacts of clergy sexual abuse on victims, such as depression, learned helplessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and diminished religious faith. Consequently, abuse may remain undisclosed for decades. When a survivor decides to come forward and report clergy sexual abuse, they can pursue two primary legal actions: criminal and civil. The act of reporting not only serves to hold the perpetrator and the affiliated religious institution accountable, but it also plays a crucial role in preventing future harm.
Criminal Legal Action
A criminal legal action is primarily aimed at punishing the individual responsible for the abuse and deterring future offenses. When a report of clergy sexual abuse is received, law enforcement agencies may launch an investigation. Should sufficient evidence be gathered, prosecutors might then bring criminal charges against the perpetrator. If the perpetrator is convicted, the court may impose various penalties, such as imprisonment, probation, and the imposition of fines.
Civil Legal Action
In a civil legal action, survivors have the opportunity to hold not only the perpetrator accountable but also the religious organization that enabled or concealed the abuse. This legal route enables survivors to seek restitution (compensation) for damages incurred due to the abuse. For example, medical bills, emotional pain and suffering, and lost earnings can impose significant financial burdens on the survivor. Financial compensation aids in alleviating these pressures, allowing survivors to focus on their recovery without the added strain of financial concerns. Furthermore, civil legal action has the potential to make changes to the religious institution’s organizational policies and practices.
In addition to compensatory damages, punitive damages may be awarded in certain cases. Such damages aim to penalize the defendant for particularly heinous conduct and to deter similar behavior in the future.
Support Organizations and Resources
Here at Crew Janci LLP, we are familiar with the patterns of abuse, silence, shame, and concealment within religious organizations and other institutions. Litigation can offer healing for the individual (in the form of justice and restitution/compensation), as well as institutional accountability resulting in changes to organizational policy and practices to better protect current and future children in the care of the religious organization.
The attorneys at Crew Janci LLP represent victims abused by clergy and church leaders in the following organizations:
Catholic churches and schools operated by diocese and religious orders (nuns, brothers, etc.);
Mormon Church (LDS) (also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints);
Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA);
Methodists and other mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian, etc);
Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and/or Pentecostal churches;
Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions;
Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower);
Eastern and New Age religious organizations;
If you or someone you love has been victimized by a member of the clergy and are interested in learning more about your rights and remedies, please contact us for a free and confidential consultation. We understand the courage it takes for victims to come forward, and we strive to provide the support and legal expertise they need during their journey toward healing.
You are not alone. We are here to help.