Here’s What to Know
Trigger Warning: This article may contain content that is painful or upsetting for individuals who have suffered sexual abuse. If you find this material distressing, consider contacting the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673 for support services.
Religious figures like priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams are trusted members of society. People often form strong bonds with their clergy members, confiding in them and relying on their guidance. Which makes it especially devastating when a clergy member violates that trust.
Thousands of people have come forward with stories of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy members or other religious figures. Sadly, many suffer in silence for years, too ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid of retribution to speak out.
Thankfully, the tide is turning. There has been an explosion of awareness in recent years about the scourge of sexual abuse in churches and other religious institutions around the world.
If you or a loved one has suffered abuse by a clergy member or other religious leader, you are not alone. Keep reading to learn about what you can do and why it makes sense to hire an experienced clergy abuse lawyer.
What Is Clergy Sexual Abuse?
Sexual abuse in churches and other religious institutions rarely starts with a violent attack. In most cases, the predatory clergy member “grooms” their victim. They use their position of authority and trust to create an emotional connection with the person—and sometimes even the family—with the objective of sexual abuse. Most victims are children or teens, but some are adults.
Abuse can take many forms, including:
- Lewd acts or comments
- Exposing oneself to a minor
- Sharing pornographic images or videos
- Sexual assault (touching, fondling, molestation)
- Sexual penetration, including vaginal, oral, or anal
- Sexual harassment or threats
- Masturbation in the presence of a minor or forcing the minor to masturbate
- Obscene phone calls, text messages, or digital interaction
- Sex trafficking
The impacts of sexual abuse can be profound, especially when the abuse starts in childhood. Young children especially may not be able to process what’s happening to them. Or they may be afraid to speak out because of threats from their abuser. They may also have been taught to not question adults or religious authorities.
As a result, abused children often internalize feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. This can lead to deep physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds.
Sexual Abuse Can Happen in Any Faith Organization
The Catholic Church has been at the center of the clergy sex abuse scandal because of the sheer number of abuse claims involving Catholic priests and other clergy members.
This attention is warranted. Hundreds of new sex abuse lawsuits against Catholic dioceses are expected to hit Northern California this year alone. This in response to a law passed in 2019, which opened a three-year window for new legal cases.
2019 also saw a sharp increase in the number of allegations of Catholic clergy sex abuse of minors compared to the previous five years. There were 4,439 allegations from July 2018 through June 2019 alone.
While the Catholic Church has gotten the most publicity, sexual abuse can happen in any faith organization. There have also been credible allegations of sexual abuse by religious leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—more commonly known as the Mormon Church—and by Islamic Faith Leaders.
Sexual Abuse Can Create a Lifetime of Struggle
Child survivors of sexual abuse often struggle with mental health issues well into adulthood, and sometimes for life.
They may have a hard time trusting others, managing their feelings, and they may have deep feelings of shame or inadequacy. These things can be debilitating, holding a person back in all areas of life.
Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by an isolated traumatic event such as a car accident. Conversely, complex PTSD is caused by long-lasting trauma that occurs for months or even years, such as ongoing sexual abuse.
People with complex PTSD often harbor pervasive negative beliefs about themselves. These self-limiting beliefs can be paralyzing. Data compiled by the Truth Project found that 85% of participants (all sexual abuse survivors) had mental health problems later in life.
These problems included depression, anxiety, and difficulty with relationships. Sadly, one in five participants had attempted suicide.
Because the body and mind are connected, people struggling with mental health issues also tend to have physical health problems. Childhood sexual abuse has been linked to:
- Heart disease
- Digestive issues
- Chronic pain
- Gynecological/reproductive problems
What Are the Legal Options for Survivors?
As calls for accountability have grown louder, several states have enacted new laws aimed at helping victims of childhood sexual abuse hold their abusers accountable.
Since 2018, 15 states have extended their statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse claims or created lookback windows. Lookback periods allow survivors to sue regardless of how long ago they were abused.
Two examples are California and New York.
- In 2019, California’s governor signed Assembly Bill 218. Beginning in January 2020, the new law opened a three-year window during which abuse victims can file new lawsuits; these lawsuits were previously barred by the statute of limitations.
- In 2019, New York enacted the Child Victims Act, extending the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. The law allows adults who were sexually abused as children by clergy members, teachers, and youth counselors to file a claim against their abuser and the abuser’s employer. Survivors have until age 55 in civil cases and until age 28 in criminal cases to file a claim. The Child Victims Act also introduced a one-year lookback window for survivors of any age to bring a claim.
In general, survivors of sexual abuse have the right to seek compensation for their abuse. This can include money damages for pain and suffering, mental health expenses, loss of income, and other damages.
They may also have the option of pursuing punitive damages to punish their abuser and the organization that enabled the abuse.
Some abuse survivors may also have the option of seeking injunctive relief. An injunction is a court order directing a person or organization to do something. In a sexual abuse case involving a clergy member, an injunction might direct the church organization to take steps to prevent future incidents of abuse.
Why Expertise Matters in Clergy Sexual Abuse Lawsuits
Experienced clergy abuse lawyers understand state laws designed to protect victims of sexual abuse, statutes of limitations, and other key information. Hiring a seasoned attorney with a track record of success gives sexual abuse survivors the best chances of receiving compensation and getting justice.
Religious organizations have lawyers working on their side whose aim is often to discredit abuse survivors. Experienced clergy abuse attorneys know this—and they know how to win.
It can be incredibly difficult for sexual abuse survivors to come forward. Although nothing can change the past or completely take away the pain the person has endured, seeking justice can be empowering and liberating.
It’s important for survivors not to wait because sexual abuse claims have statutes of limitations.
If you or your child has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted clergy member, call the experienced clergy abuse lawyers at Saunders & Walker, P.A. We can help you get justice and hold the person accountable for the pain they’ve caused. Whether it happened recently or years ago, call us for a free case evaluation today at (727) 579-4500.