In a recent New Jersey priest sex abuse case involving a church in Tuckerton, NJ and the Diocese of Trenton, the allegations of sex abuse involve 1 priest and at least 3 victims. The first victim states he was abused when he was 14 years old, in 1968. Two victims state their abuse occurred years, if not decades later. At least one of the victims has filed suit against the priest, church and diocese.*
The abuse of the victim in that case is alleged to have begun nearly 3 decades ago, when the victim was about 13 years old. Some of the acts occurred in hotels in Delaware, the rectory, the victim’s own home, etc.
The case was originally filed in Delaware, no doubt to take advantage of a special law passed in Delaware a few years ago which allowed victims whose cases were previously time-barred to file suit. That law opened a 2 year window in which those whose cases were barred by the statute of limitations could file suit against those responsible. This office handled a monumental case against a sitting state court judge who subsequently admitted to the abuse.
However, the case against the church and diocese was kicked out of Delaware because in general, Delaware courts have no jurisdiction over businesses that don’t do business in Delaware. This issue is known as personal jurisdiction. Basically, the defendants argued that the priest, when he took the victim to Delaware hotels, was not acting as a priest, and therefore, the church/diocese had no business being sued in Delaware.
In this case, the legal arguments of the church and diocese on this issue highlight a particularly troubling trend – rather than accepting responsibility for these horrendous acts of abuse, church officials are fighting tooth and nail to win their cases. Basically, it all boils down to money. Churches don’t want to lose any more money due to these sex abuse cases.
Perhaps the hard-ball approach is an indication of something the Catholic Church knows is true – the problem of priest sex abuse is endemic and has been for a long time, and over time, as more and more victims come forward, it will face more and more lawsuits. So, it has to fight tooth and nail on every case to send a message to would-be plaintiffs, which is this: if you are going to take on the Church, you had better be prepared for a fight.
What’s particularly troubling is that the Church (via churches and dioceses) is behaving just as though any other defendant would in an ordinary crime victims’ lawsuit case. You expect a bar or restaurant which is sued for serving alcohol to a minor to fight tooth and nail; that’s because the bar/restaurant’s very livelihood is at risk.
However, for the Catholic Church, the problem is that a church/diocese is not any old defendant, and priest sex abuse cases are in a league of their own. These cases involve incredibly egregious conduct, not only on the part of the perpetrator (priest), but also on the church itself.
As an institution, the Catholic Church has a duty to not only protect its current congregants, but it also has a moral duty to right its own wrongs. Making complex legal arguments to avoid legal responsibility is distasteful, especially coming from a historical pillar of morality.
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*Source: Naples v. Diocese of Trenton