Can Churches Be Held Liable for Sexual Abuse?

An archdiocese, diocese, bishop, and others may bear legal responsibility for acts of sexual abuse committed by clergy.

Churches and other places of worship are meant to be synonymous with faith, sanctuary, and trust. In communities all across the country, people turn to religious organizations like the Catholic Church for hope and guidance. The prominent position of the church is part of what makes sexual abuse committed by clergy so abhorrent and incomprehensible.

Even when acts of abuse are carried out by an individual member of the clergy or a church employee, the institution itself and its leadership can face legal responsibility for the resulting harm inflicted on the abuse survivor. In the sections that follow, we'll:

  • explain how this kind of liability works
  • look at lawsuits and settlements involving allegations of clergy abuse, and
  • discuss compensation funds and other options for abuse survivors.

What Is the Source of Church Liability for Abuse?

How can a church and its leadership bear legal responsibility when it was an individual clergy member or other employee/representative who committed the actual act of sexual abuse against a child? The answer depends on the state and the situation, but typically one or both of the following can come into play:

  • state statutes that impose certain legal obligations on institutions that care for (or are otherwise responsible for the health and safety of) children, and
  • traditional (often negligence-based) liability principles that require institutions to adequately and responsibly hire, retain, and supervise employees and other agents.

So, for example, when a diocese knows (or based on the circumstances, should clearly know) that a member of its clergy is abusing (or has abused) a child, and the diocese doesn't do enough to stop the abuse—or to protect the victim (and other potential victims)—a variety of legal arguments can be employed to establish liability. And when a diocese engages in behavior that could amount to a cover up (by encouraging or even bargaining for a victim's silence; or by transferring an abusive clergy member to a new parish as a "solution" to the problem), liability becomes even more clear.

Get more details on filing a lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse.

A number of clergy abuse lawsuits have sought to hold church leadership liable for abuse under traditional legal theories like "vicarious liability" or "respondeat superior," which can often be used to hold an employer legally responsible for the wrongdoing of an employee or representative. More than a few civil courts have rejected these sorts of claims under the logic that there is an insufficient nexus between acts of sexual abuse and the employment relationship, but it's something of an open question.

The number of legal options available to childhood sexual abuse survivors may be one reason why reports of clergy/priest abuse are on the rise. Each year since 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has put together a nationwide audit of dioceses. According to The Washington Post, the 2019 audit counted 4,434 allegations of clergy sex abuse against minors (about half of which were identified as credible), compared with 1,451 allegations in 2018, 693 in 2017, 1,318 in 2016 and 903 in 2015.

In turn, thousands of civil lawsuits have been filed by survivors of clergy sexual abuse against defendants ranging from individual priests to bishops and cardinals, to dioceses/archdioceses, even The Vatican itself.

Clergy Sexual Abuse Lawsuits and Settlements

The deeply disturbing nature of this kind of sexual abuse is only compounded by how widespread the pattern of misconduct and cover-up has turned out to be—across the U.S. and internationally—and not just over the course of a few years, but going back decades.

Much of the earliest widespread awareness of the nature and breadth of clergy abuse came from Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by the Boston Globe. Starting in 2002, the Globe dug into the criminal cases against a number of Catholic priests in the Boston area. Among the Globe's many disturbing findings was the revelation of Church leadership's role in covering up (many say "abetting") the abuse by ignoring red flags and engaging in creative non-solutions—moving priests from one community to another in the wake of disturbing allegations, for example. The result was that, rather than removing a problem priest from a parish and reporting the situation to proper authorities, church leaders allowed cycles of abuse to begin anew in different, unsuspecting communities. This practice would soon reveal itself as a pattern worldwide, as more survivors came forward, more investigations were launched, more indictments were handed down, and more civil lawsuits were filed in court.

Any accurate accounting of the total number of clergy abuse incidents over recent decades remains elusive, but according to Bishop-Accountability.org (a central resource for information and data on the Catholic clergy abuse in the U.S.):

  • The U.S. Catholic Church and its insurers have paid more than $3 billion in settlements and monetary awards related to clergy abuse incidents over the years, as of 2021.
  • Over 15,000 survivors had come forward to report abuse by Catholic clergy as of 2009.
  • A 1993 study estimated that there are over 100,000 abuse survivors in the U.S., though most survivors "will never come forward to file a criminal or civil complaint" owing to restrictive lawsuit filing deadlines (more on these later) and early diocesan efforts to cover up abuse allegations, leaving survivors feeling isolated.
  • While lawsuits are common, trials are rare: since 1950, out of more than 3,000 civil lawsuits filed by survivors of clergy abuse, only 41 cases have gone to trial.

And a review of some settlement agreements and compensation funds made available to survivors just in the last few years reveals the staggering scope of the problem:

Clergy Abuse Survivor Compensation Funds

In many parts of the country, reports of abuse and the filing of civil lawsuits have prompted dioceses and archdioceses to create compensation funds for survivors of clergy/priest abuse.

Acceptance of compensation from one of these funds is almost always contingent on the survivor's signing a release, giving up the right to file any future civil lawsuit over the abuse. This obviously keeps certain information out of the public eye, which may or not be optimal from the survivor's perspective. But in situations where the statute of limitations filing deadline that would apply to any such lawsuit has passed, a claim through these kinds of compensation funds may be one of the survivor's only options, at least when it comes to holding the church financially responsible for its wrongdoing.

To learn more about compensation funds and other forms of assistance that may be available to survivors of clergy abuse, it might make sense to start with this list of diocese/archdiocese-specific Victim Assistance Coordinators (from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).

In some instances, compensation funds like these—and the waves of claims and settlements they have prompted—have been financially crippling for the dioceses/archdioceses involved. For example, the Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020, and at one point faced 400 allegations of clergy abuse by survivors who filed claims for monetary compensation ahead of a court-imposed March 2021 deadline. These claims need to be resolved (via settlement or trial) before the diocese can take advantage of any financial reorganization benefits available through bankruptcy.

A number of other dioceses find themselves in the same operational predicament, and this scenario will likely continue to play out across the country, as state lawmakers increase their efforts to loosen unreasonable restrictions on survivors' legal options.

Taking the Next (or First) Step

There is a wide spectrum of resources and options available to survivors of childhood abuse, from support networks to legal assistance.

Connecting with SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) is one option. SNAP is a peer network working to "support survivors, protect children and the vulnerable, heal the wounded, and expose the truth." SNAP also offers a number of valuable online tools, including state-by-state investigation hotlines.

Reporting abuse to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or to archdiocese/diocese leadership is another option. Getting in touch with a Victim Assistance Coordinator and telling your story can not only shine a light on offenders and initiate action, it can also help protect others from future harm. Many dioceses/archdioceses have also set up abuse survivor claim review processes, and created reparations or compensation programs for survivors.

Get more detailed information on help and resources in our companion article Taking Action After Childhood Sexual Abuse.

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