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Sex Abuse by Priests, Clergy or Church Employees – Legal Rights

Page last updated: January 4, 2017

One of the most horrendous types of child molestation is priest or clergy abuse. Children who are victimized by predators who profess to be religious will often suffer extreme amounts of stress, both from a mental standpoint and a spiritual one. This is in addition to the very real emotional and psychological trauma caused by the abuse.

Many victims will sadly experience life-long trauma, even into advanced age. Many victims don’t even begin to come to terms with the abuse until they are much older, well into adulthood. Drug abuse, criminal conduct and mental/emotional disorders are very common.

Oftentimes, individuals don’t even remember the abuse until they are adults. It isn’t uncommon for someone in their 40s or 50s to recall specific acts of abuse, for the first time.

Victims of priest and clergy sexual assault and abuse have legal rights to obtain justice against their abusers. In addition, general tort laws of both Pennsylvania and New Jersey allow victims to pursue legal actions against any other person or entity which hid the abuse or negligently allowed it to continue. Victims are often entitled to financial compensation (see below for more info about civil priest/clergy abuse lawsuits).

Justice for Victims of Priest & Clergy Abuse

If you or a loved one was the victim of sexual abuse or assault by a priest or member of the clergy, the first step is to talk about the abuse with a trusted friend or family member. Oftentimes, simply verbalizing the abuse and talking about it can help victims begin the journey to healing and recovery.

Many victims are entitled to seek justice by filing criminal and/or civil lawsuits against the perpetrators and others who allowed the abuse to occur. This is why it is important to seek counsel from a priest/clergy abuse lawyer. Most lawyers offer a free consultation.

Related: Determining Success of a Priest & Church Sexual Abuse Lawsuit in PA & NJ [Success of a priest or church sex abuse lawsuit depends on many variables, such as the complexity of the legal issues, the state/county where the case is filed. In addition, the statute of limitations is often an issue in these cases.]

Criminal Prosecution is Not the Same as a Civil Lawsuit for Priest/Clergy Abuse

courtroom justice lawsuitCriminal cases and civil cases are entirely separate and distinct from each other. In a criminal case for priest/clergy sex abuse, the victim will file a police report. Local law enforcement officers will investigate the case and confer with the local prosecutor’s office. The case may be deferred due to lack of evidence. This may occur in cases which happened many years ago.

For instance, a priest abuse case which occurred 35 years ago may be difficult to prove. If there is enough evidence to sustain a conviction, the prosecutor’s office will proceed with the criminal case. Eventually, there may be a trial or the defendant may take a plea deal.

Whether a prosecutor proceeds with a criminal priest/clergy abuse case depends on whether the evidence meets the standard of proof for a criminal conviction. In criminal cases, defendants will only be convicted if the evidence meets the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. This standard is the highest standard imposed by the law and explains why some priest abuse cases will not go forward.

In a civil case for priest or clergy abuse, the standard of proof is much more relaxed. A victim only needs to prove the elements of the case by a preponderance of the evidence. Evidence meets this standard if it makes a proposition more likely true than not true.

Civil Lawsuits in Priest/Clergy Sex Abuse Cases

Once hired for a civil case, the lawyer will conduct a full interview to obtain the entire factual history, i.e., what happened and when. If the case is still within the relevant statute of limitations period (which varies from state to state), the lawyer will discuss the next steps, such as how a lawsuit gets filed, how long it takes, and what to expect.

Financial Compensation for Victims of Priest/Clergy Abuse

Victims of priest/clergy abuse may make claims for financial compensation. Claims often include damages for medical treatment, psychological counseling, and pain and suffering. Compensation for pain and suffering often depends on the extent of the abuse and how it ultimately affected the individual, their relationships, etc.

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