In the vast majority of the priest or church sex abuse and assault lawsuits, multiple parties will be liable for perpetuating the abuse or allowing it to occur.
In a typical priest/church sex abuse lawsuit, not only is the perpetrating priest liable, other parties which can be held liable include church organizations such as a diocese, church, youth organization, etc.
While every case varies in terms of the facts and circumstances, there are three common theories in any priest/church sex abuse case:
- negligent or intentional conduct,
- pattern of wrongful conduct, and
This article will discuss negligent and intentional conduct theories of liability.
Negligent or Intentional Conduct
These are the two theories most commonly advanced against church organizations such as a diocese or church in a sex abuse case.
It is important to note that the perpetrator is also liable. The most common basis of liability against the perpetrator is assault and battery, which is commonly defined as a non-consensual touching. Obviously, sexual abuse and sexual assault constitute an extreme version of assault and battery.
A church organization may be liable for negligent conduct or intentional conduct. The definitions for these terms are similar but vary under the law.
In a nutshell, negligence is usually defined as failing to do something you should do or doing something you should not do. In general, when assessing whether a given party was negligent or not, courts will consider what’s called the reasonable person standard: what would a reasonable person do under the same set of circumstances?
Intentional conduct is generally defined as acting with forethought, meaning that the wrongdoer contemplated the course of action before taking action, and therefore, intends to act in a certain way. The key difference between negligent conduct and intentional conduct is whether the wrongdoer contemplated a course of action prior to taking action.
In a civil sex abuse case, such as a priest sex abuse case, the church or diocese may have been negligent in failing to take steps to prevent sexual abuse. On the other hand, the church and diocese may have acted intentionally.
Related: Philadelphia Priest Church Sex Abuse Scandal Update (March 2014)
Example of Negligent Conduct in a Priest Sex Abuse Case
A priest develops an unhealthy attachment to one of his congregants, escalates non-consenting sexual contact and sexually assaults the victim. Church employees hear rumors about the abuse, and one employee even witnessed one of the sexual acts. However, none of the church employees file reports with law-enforcement or otherwise notify church officials. Years later, the priest repeats the behavior and engages in the same conduct with a different congregant.
In these kinds of situations, negligence is usually based on 1. the church’s failure to institute an adequate policy or procedure about mandatory reporting of sexual violence of church employees, or 2. failure to provide proper training to all church employees about any such policy or procedure. Had to the church done either one or both of these things, the priest’s actions may not have occurred at all.
Example of Intentional Conduct in a Priest Sex Abuse Case
Using the same example as above, church employees report the priest’s actions to church administrators. Church administrators then attempt to silence the victims by indicating that they will not be believed. In addition, church officials reassign the offending priest to another congregation where again, the priest engages in additional acts of sexual violence.
Here, the church would likely face liability for intentionally trying to frustrate any reports to law-enforcement and moving the priest to another congregation without notifying any of those church employees or members of the congregation about the priest’s prior conduct.
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