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I Was Abused By A Priest: What Are My Legal Options?

Nov 30, 2023
Last updated Mar 18, 2024
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For many survivors of priest sex abuse, the pain and suffering they have endured often lasts decades, or even a lifetime. As such, sexual abuse is a vile and horrific crime, but the added impact of being abused by a trusted member of society such as one’s priest, can make it much more devastating for survivors. 

If you or someone you love has been sexually abused by a priest, you do not have to suffer in silence or face this difficult situation alone. At Edwards Henderson, our priest sex abuse lawyers have helped many survivors obtain justice and access the resources they need to help from their trauma. Contact us today for a free consultation to discuss your case and learn how we can help.

Key Takeaways

  • Child sex abuse is a serious problem within the Catholic Church in the U.S. and across the globe.
  • In the U.S., the Catholic Church has spent more than $3 billion to settle allegations of clergy sex abuse.
  • Survivors of priest sex abuse have the right to pursue justice and compensation by filing a civil sex abuse lawsuit.
  • A trusted priest sexual abuse attorney can help survivors recover compensation they may be entitled to for the crime against them.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse occurs when someone uses their authority or influence to coerce or manipulate another person into engaging in sexual activity. The term includes any unwanted sexual touching, penetration, or other sexual behavior. 

Child sexual abuse specifically refers to sexual abuse against children under the age of consent, which varies from 16-18 years, depending on the state. Many children lack the capacity to call out abuse after it happens and therefore, suffer in silence for many years.

How Common is Priest Sexual Abuse?

Priest and clergy sexual abuse occur much more frequently than often realized. Many believe sexual abuse to be a systemic issue within the Catholic Church. 

The 2002, a Boston Globe investigation into sex abuse allegations in Boston-area Catholic Churches was the first to draw national attention to what turned out to be a widespread issue. The Globe’s investigation shed light on the scope of the issue and the extent of the church’s cover-up. It was found that “predator priests” were simply moved around from parish to parish, working in the same position they committed the abuse in. Years later, a Pennsylvania grand jury found that over 300 priests in Pennsylvania had collectively abused more than 1000 children

Unfortunately, these investigations could not prevent further abuse from happening. According to the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops’ 2018-2019 report, churches received more than 4,400 reports of sex abuse by clergy members. It is estimated that Catholic dioceses in the United States alone have paid over $3 billion in compensation to sexual abuse survivors. The largest settlement to date came from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which paid $660 million to settle sexual abuse allegations made by 508 survivors of clergy sex abuse, with each person receiving roughly $1.3 million.

Long-Term Effects of Sexual Abuse 

Sexual abuse has long-lasting effects on a survivor’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. For those abused by a priest, the trauma can be even more devastating for survivors. Some of the common long-term effects of sexual abuse are:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Sexual abuse may leave survivors with PTSD, resulting in symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and anxiety.
  • Depression and Anxiety: Sexual abuse may trigger anxiety and depression, leading to survivors feeling isolated, ashamed, and helpless, thereby exacerbating these conditions.
  • Trust Issues: A history of sexual abuse can make it difficult to trust others, particularly those in positions of authority, such as members of the clergy.
  • Substance Abuse: Survivors may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism or numbing agent to deal with the trauma of sexual abuse. Many survivors also suffer from higher rates of addiction. 
  • Relationship Problems: Sexual abuse can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. Survivors may struggle with boundaries or suffer from intimacy issues.
  • Eating Disorders: Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, are linked to the trauma of sexual abuse. Studies have shown that 30-65% of child sex abuse survivors develop anorexia as a result of the abuse.
  • Self-Harm and Suicide: Some survivors of sexual abuse may engage in self-harm to mask their emotional pain. Others may experience suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.

Child Sexual Abuse: Negative Impact on Priest Abuse Survivors

The effects of childhood sexual abuse cannot be overstated, as the individuals committing such a ghastly crime are viewed as moral and spiritual leaders who are tasked with protecting and guiding their congregation. Child sex abuse survivors of priest sex abuse may suffer from mental health issues, including a deep distrust in the Church and God, as well as a shattered sense of self as they age and mourn the loss of their childhood. 

If you are a survivor of priest sex abuse, know that healing is possible, and many resources exist for those in need. A qualified therapist can help you work through the trauma and find peace. Whenever you are ready, you may contact a sex abuse lawyer to help you file a sexual abuse lawsuit. A successful lawsuit may help you access the resources you need to move on from the trauma. 

Can I Sue A Priest for Sexual Abuse?

Yes, you can sue a priest for sexual abuse. Filing a priest sex abuse lawsuit can help you reclaim a sense of justice for the suffering you have endured and help you obtain financial compensation for your pain and suffering as well as the cost of therapy, relevant medical bills, lost wages, and other losses related to the abuse.

In addition to filing a lawsuit against the perpetrator, survivors may sue Catholic dioceses or other church members for negligence, such as for covering up the abuse or allowing a clergy member with a history of abuse to stay and have contact with children. You must file a lawsuit under the applicable statute of limitations, so it is best to contact a qualified sex abuse attorney as soon as you are ready. An experienced attorney can help guide you through the legal process and plan a legal strategy based on your situation and needs. 

What are the Main Differences Between Civil and Criminal Lawsuits?

It is important to know the difference between civil and criminal lawsuits when considering taking a legal action against a priest for sexual abuse. 

A civil sex abuse lawsuit is typically brought by the survivor or their representative for claiming compensation for their losses. You may also file a lawsuit against a potentially responsible third party, such as a church, for their negligence in preventing or reporting the abuse. The burden of proof in a civil sex abuse lawsuit is a ‘preponderance of evidence’ or the ‘more likely than not’ standard. 

On the other hand, the state prosecutor or district attorney brings a criminal charge against the accused parties to hold them criminally liable. The punishment for a criminal offense is a fine and/or imprisonment. The burden of proof in a criminal case is a ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard, which means it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant(s) committed the crime of sexual abuse. 

A priest talking to kids in a church

Civil Sexual Abuse Lawsuit: Compensation for Priest Abuse Survivors

A civil lawsuit may enable you to recover the following types of compensation:

  • Pain and suffering: Survivors have the right to pursue compensation for the pain and suffering experienced because of the abuse.
  • Medical expenses: Survivors of priest sexual abuse may recover compensation for medical expenses incurred as a result of the abuse, including medical procedures, emergency services, therapy, medication, and other related costs.
  • Lost wages: If the survivor missed work due to the abuse or from the resulting trauma, they may seek compensation for lost wages.
  • Punitive damages: In some cases, the court may award punitive damages, which punish the defendant for egregious misconduct so as to deter others from engaging in similar behavior.

Priest Sexual Abuse: Finding Help and Resources

Survivors of priest sexual abuse often struggle with feelings of anger, fear, shame, guilt, and isolation. While it may be challenging to understand where to turn for help, there are resources available:

  • RAINN: The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It provides support and resources to survivors of sexual abuse and offers a variety of online resources. RAINN also operates the 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
  • Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP): SNAP is a support group for survivors of priest sexual abuse. The organization provides a safe and supportive space for survivors to connect with others who have experienced similar trauma.
  • The Catholic Project: The Catholic Project is a research and policy initiative that promotes healing and reform within the Catholic Church. They offer services such as survivor support networks, research and policy reports, and advocacy initiatives.
  • Taking Back Ourselves: Taking Back Ourselves, a non-profit, offers retreats and workshops for survivors of sexual violence, thereby promoting a safe and supportive environment to connect people with similar experiences.
  • Ministry Safe: Ministry Safe provides training and consulting services to churches and other organizations that help prevent child sexual abuse. They also offer resources and support for survivors of priest abuse.
  • Stop It Now: Stop It Now is a non-profit organization working to prevent child sexual abuse survivors by offering education and resources. Their helpline and online chat service answer questions or concerns about child sexual abuse, training programs, and resources for parents and caregivers.

Priest Sexual Abuse: FAQs

1. What is clergy misconduct? 

Clergy misconduct refers to any unethical or illegal behavior by a member of the clergy and may include sexual abuse. Clergy misconduct is a grave violation of trust and an abuse of clergy member’s power. If you or someone you love is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, you should contact a qualified attorney who can help you come forward with your story and potentially prevent others from being abused. 

2. Can I file a lawsuit against a deceased priest? 

Yes, you may be able to file a priest sex abuse lawsuit against the deceased priest’s estate. However, many survivors find it easier to pursue civil claims against the Catholic diocese as they may be held legally responsible for the actions of their clergy members. 

3. What is the statute of limitations for filing a priest sexual abuse lawsuit?

The statute of limitations for filing a priest sexual abuse lawsuit varies by state. Keep in mind that many states have extended the statute of limitations for sex abuse lawsuits, so survivors may potentially file a lawsuit even if the abuse happened many years ago. Some states now have a “lookback” window allowing survivors to file a lawsuit even if the statute of limitations already expired. It is best to seek individual legal guidance if you are considering filing a lawsuit for priest sexual abuse in your state.

4. What is the lookback window for filing a child sex abuse lawsuit in California?

The Sexual Abuse and Cover-Up Accountability Act went into effect on January 1, 2023, opening up a three-year lookback window for survivors to file civil sexual assault lawsuits until December 31, 2026. This window applies to sexual assault committed on or after January 1, 2009, except for claims litigated to finality in court or compromised by a settlement agreement before January 1, 2023. Contact a California sex abuse attorney to learn more. 

5. Can I sue the Vatican for covering up priest sex abuse?

It is possible, though difficult, to sue the Vatican for covering up priest sex abuse. In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases where priest sex abuse survivors have sued the Vatican for its role in covering up sexual abuse. These cases are complex, time-consuming, and require experienced legal representation

6. How many Catholic priests are convicted of abuse?

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 7,002 clerics were credibly accused of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2018. However, a 2004 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that out of 100,000 deacons, priests, and clergy, 4.4 percent were accused of sexual abuse, but only .26 percent (252) were convicted over a 50-year period.

7. What is the average settlement amount for a successful priest sex abuse lawsuit?

While the amount awarded to each individual varies based on their unique circumstances, the average settlement amount for a successful clergy sexual abuse lawsuit is between $300,000 to $400,000. This includes compensation for pain and suffering, medical bills, therapy, lost wages, and other damages caused by the abuse.

8. Have Hindu priests been convicted of sexual abuse in the U.S.? 

Yes, there have been cases of Hindu priests being convicted of sexual abuse in the United States. In one highly publicized case, a Hindu priest in Queens, NY was charged with two counts of sexual abuse. In another case, a Hindu priest in Minnesota pled guilty to the sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl. 

9. Have Buddhist monks been convicted of sexual abuse in the U.S.? 

Yes, there have been several sexual abuse lawsuits filed against Buddhist monks in the U.S. In 2022, a Buddhist monk was accused of molesting two teenage girls at a temple in California. In another case, a monk was charged with felony aggravated criminal sexual abuse and predatory criminal sexual abuse after molesting two children at a temple in Chicago. 

10. Can I file a lawsuit against a Southern Baptist Convention member? 

Unfortunately, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has also come under scrutiny for sexual abuse. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle reported that more than 700 survivors had accused nearly 400 SBC leaders and volunteers of sexual misconduct over the last 20 years. Survivors of SBC sexual abuse  can potentially pursue a claim against the pastor as well as the SBC for enabling the abuse. 

Talk to Compassionate Sexual Abuse Lawyers at Edwards Henderson

If you or a loved one was sexually abused by a priest or another religious leader, speak with a qualified attorney as soon as you can. At Edwards Henderson, we have extensive experience handling sensitive cases involving clergy sexual abuse, and we know firsthand the trauma and emotional turmoil that survivors endure. Our compassionate lawyers are committed to fighting for the rights of survivors and holding abusers and enabling third-party organizations accountable for the abuse inflicted on adults and children. 

We are here to support you in your journey toward healing and recovery. Contact us for a free legal consultation today. 

Article Sources

  1. Church allowed abuse by priest
  2. More than 300 Pennsylvania priests abused 1,000 children over decades, report says
  3. US Catholic bishops: clergy sex abuse claims tripled in 2019
  4. RAINN
  5. SNAP
  6. The Catholic Project
  7. Taking Back Ourselves
  8. Ministry Safe
  9. Stop It Now
  10. Collated USCCB Data

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