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Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits against Religious Institutions in California

Representing adult and child victims of sexual assault and exploitation

Religious leaders are supposed to offer us comfort and moral guidance. When one of them turns out to be a child molester, the betrayal cuts to the quick. At Taylor & Ring, we fight to ensure that all child sex abusers are held to account for their actions, no matter who they are. Call us in Los Angeles if you or your child was sexually assaulted by a religious leader in California.

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What you need to know about child molestation and religious leaders

Child molestation happens to children of all ages, sexes, genders, and religions. Though people tend to associate it with Catholic priests, this type of abuse is committed by Rabbis, non-denominational pastors, imams, and gurus. Perpetrators manipulate their extensive power and influence over religious followers to access children. Acts of abuse may occur within a counseling session, a mentoring relationship, or in a childcare setting. These religious leaders use their authority to abuse children and manipulate them into keeping the incident a secret.

Potential signs of child molestation

If you suspect that a religious leader has sexually molested your child, be on the lookout for warning signs like:

  • Unwillingness to attend services, or to attend classes or functions held by or at the institution
  • Withdrawn behaviors around the religious leader
  • Physical injuries or illnesses
  • Depression
  • Trouble eating and/or sleeping
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Child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church

In 2002, the Boston Globe published an investigation that led to the uncovering of a sex abuse scandal involving the Archdiocese of Boston. Five priests were convicted on criminal charges of abuse. The cover-ups were exposed. The archdiocese paid $95 million to more than 550 victims and their families.

At the time, this seemed like a vindication.

It wasn’t. It was one of many, many cases of lives being ruined, and the Catholic Church attempting to buy its way out of a scandal.

As of 2017, reported 4,268 clergy accused of abuse, the overwhelming majority of them being priests. To date, there are 662 Catholic clergy in California who have been accused of abuse. Eleven of them are from the Los Angeles Diocese.

And the numbers are only growing.

Making a claim against your Diocese in California

There are hundreds of Catholic Churches throughout the state: almost 80 serve Los Angeles alone. California has a large population of Catholics (about a third of the population), and is served by 12 Dioceses – districts under the direct care of a Bishop:

  1. Sacramento
  2. Santa Rosa
  3. San Francisco
  4. Oakland
  5. Stockton
  6. San Jose
  7. Monterey
  8. Fresno
  9. Los Angeles
  10. San Bernardino
  11. Orange
  12. San Diego

If you or your child was abused by a member of the Catholic church – a priest, a deacon, a brother, even a volunteer – you may be able to bring a claim against the perpetrator, the church, and the Bishop in charge of the Diocese. The Diocese itself can also be liable, and it carries liability insurance for cases like this.

Can you sue the Vatican?

Yes, you can – but it is a difficult road. You should speak with one of our California child sexual abuse attorneys if this is an avenue you wish to pursue.

The mandated reporter exemption

California laws state that school officials – teachers, aides, administrators, counselors, etc. – must report any known or suspected child abuse (sexual or otherwise) to local law enforcement and/or a child welfare agency. This law also applies to members of a religious order, with one major exception: confession. If your child confesses that he has been abused, or if a perpetrator confesses to abusing a child, the priest hearing the confession is exempt from the mandated reporter law.

California is currently trying to change this law, to get rid of the exemption. The Catholic Church has been fighting it, because breaking the seal of confession can lead to excommunication of the priest.

However, in March of 2019, Pope Francis issued “new sex abuse legislation for Vatican personnel and Holy See diplomats that requires the immediate reporting of abuse allegations to Vatican prosecutors, a policy shift aimed at being a model for the Catholic Church worldwide. The mandatory reporting provision, while limited in scope, marks the first time the Vatican has put into law requirements for Catholic officials to report allegations of sex crimes to police or face fines and possible jail time” (emphasis ours).

At this time, the law only applies to diplomatic embassies and Vatican City, but the goal appears to be to reach all parts of the globe. Failure to report abuse can lead to a 5000 euro fine, and up to 6 months in prison.

Child molestation and Jehovah’s Witnesses

Since 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has been building a “secret” database of “undocumented child molesters: at least two decades’ worth of names and addresses—likely numbering in the tens of thousands—and detailed acts of alleged abuse, most of which have never been shared with law enforcement.” The Atlantic, which detailed the efforts of Mark O’Donnell, a former Witness who has blown the whistle on Watchtower’s efforts to conceal the sexual assault and abuse, believes that as many as 18,000 child predators could be on the list.

At this time, the U.S. government has been slow to pursue leads from O’Donnell, and Watchtower, it appears, “rather than comply with multiple court orders to release the information contained in its database… has paid millions of dollars to keep it secret, even from the survivors whose stories are contained within.”

Sexual assault and the Church of Scientology

In February, A&E chose not to run an episode of the popular show “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” because it focused on the sexual assault allegations against actor Danny Masterson. Remini asked that the episode be shelved back in 2017, so that it would not affect the ongoing criminal investigation. A year later, and the episode is still on hold.

This is not the first famous Scientologist who has been accused of assault; Paul Haggis has also been accused of rape, and a USA TODAY report from 2017 discussed claims of assault and incest by non-celebrity members.

These are only the latest accusations against the Church of Scientology – and we doubt they will be the last. Law enforcement in multiple countries around the globe have investigated these claims, and numerous witnesses have come forward. If you are ready to speak truth to power, call us today, and find out how our sexual abuse attorneys can help.

Lawsuits against religious schools are different

If your child is sexually abused while attending a private, religious school, you can still file a lawsuit – but the rules are a little different. This is because public schools take funding from the state and federal governments; in exchange, they are required to report acts of misconduct, and ensure that your child’s Constitutional rights are upheld. Religious institutions are not held to the same standard as public institutions, so instead, you must prove either a breach of contract, or negligence.

  • Breach of contract: In order to file a lawsuit, you must prove that a duty of care to your child was established, and that this duty was breached by the behavior.
  • Negligence: Once the duty of care was breached, your child sustained some level of harm as a result.

Why civil litigation is needed in religious sexual abuse cases

Children who suffer sexual abuse by their religious leaders usually need extensive psychological counseling, requiring continual sessions for years or for a lifetime. They can have difficulty making friendships and the ability to have loving adult relationships and children of their own is often much harder. Many of them leave the religious organizations they once belonged to altogether. For adult survivors of sexual abuse, filing a claim in civil court can bring closure and peace after years of inner turmoil.

The differences between criminal and civil cases

There are a lot of similarities between a civil case and a criminal case. Both aim to hold the perpetrator accountable for his or her actions. Both may involve jury trials. Both have the aim of stopping the abuse, so no other children have to endure the same type of tragedy. The primary difference is that civil lawsuits seek that justice in different ways from criminal lawsuits, and are therefore executed differently. In a civil sexual abuse case:

  • The standard of proof is different. It is easier to prove wrongdoing in a civil case where the victim only has to show a preponderance of the evidence that the sexual molestation or abuse happened. In criminal cases, the government has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Because many cases are decided by the testimony of the witnesses, this distinction can be crucial.
  • The victim’s representative is different. In civil cases, one of our experienced attorneys represents the abused child. In criminal cases, the government prosecutor brings the case.
  • The aims differ. In civil cases, our aim is to hold the religious leader, and any church or religious entity that should have supervised the leader, accountable for his, her, or their actions. This is often achieved through seeking monetary damages. These damages should compensate the victim for all of the counseling bills that will be required and the extensive emotional suffering and loss of quality of life of the child. In criminal cases, the primary aim is to find the wrongdoers guilty and then to punish them with prison time.

Some of the other differences are that the rules of evidence are different, and in civil cases, our lawyers can conduct discovery of the key participants before any trial. Another key consideration is when the case can be brought. Often times, child abuse victims are too traumatized to disclose what happened until many years after the abuse — often not until they become adults.

Advocating for the rights of child victims throughout California

When these incidents come to light, many religious organizations try to handle them internally. They may claim that this course of action protects the victim and the family, but the real intention is to protect the offender and the religion. This method of self-prosecution commonly ends in favor of the perpetrator. It also tends to demonize the victim and the victim’s family. This is an extremely difficult situation, especially for individuals who are deeply connected to their religious family.

At Taylor & Ring, we recognize these tactics as a way to avoid accountability. Our capable California child sex abuse lawyers are dedicated to advocating for our clients and holding perpetrators liable for their actions. We understand how difficult this process can be, so we provide you and your child with compassionate, yet aggressive representation.

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Trust an experienced Los Angeles sexual abuse law firm with your case

If you believe your child is the victim of sexual molestation by a religious leader, you need to take legal action. Trust the reliable law practice of Taylor & Ring to provide you with compassionate and comprehensive representation. Call us today at 310-776-6390 or complete our contact form to secure our knowledgeable and aggressive services. Your initial consultation is free.

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