Church Charges Face Legal Hurdles

Priest abuse scandal. Roman Catholic church. Sex abuse.
Yes, the charges against the Roman Catholic Church are shocking. No, says Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen, they may not be actionable.
The latest handful of sex-abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church, brought by different attorneys in different jurisdictions utilizing different legal theories, all have two things in common: The factual allegations they contain are as shocking as the legal claims they raise are dubious.

Even if the allegations are true, they are unlikely to meet the many legal hurdles set up to prevent these sorts of suits from proceeding to trial.

Don't blame the Church for that. Legal barriers like statues of limitations and standing and pleading requirements were in place long before any of these abuse cases came to light. And they have a place in the law precisely to weed out cases which should have or could have been brought earlier or by people directly affected by the actions or inaction of the defendants.

So while the Church no doubt will continue to take its share of public relations hits and may even end up shelling out some cash in the form of "nuisance" settlements, in the end none of the lawsuits I've looked at are likely to generate a jackpot verdict against the Vatican, the Holy See, the Pope or anyone or anything else not directly involved in a recent act of abuse.

That's not to excuse the Church or any individuals related to it for whatever awful conduct ultimately is proved; it's just that sometimes the law cannot and does not provide a remedy for all such conduct.

Take the case of Rick Gomez, for example. Gomez sued the Holy See (i.e. the Vatican) in state court in Florida Wednesday alleging that it concealed "allegations of child sexual abuse against its clergy from law enforcement authorities" and "created and maintained secret archives and/or sub secreto files containing documents and records regarding child sexual abuse which are accessible only to bishops." According to his complaint, Gomez was sexually abused by a Catholic priest in 1987 when he was 14-years-old and told his mother about it two years later, in 1989.

The complaint also states that the plaintiff's mother reported the incident to law enforcement officials who for several reasons decided not to pursue the matter much after a few initial inquiries. According to the complaint, the priest who allegedly abused Gomez was transferred from Florida to New Jersey as part of some vast three-card monte game wherein "offending" priests were moved from the places where they "offended" in order to conceal their "offenses."

If true, if the Church had a policy in the 1980s to protect priests in this fashion, it's downright outrageous. But I still don't see how Gomez will prevail — or even get to trial.

First, Gomez will have to get around the fact that the lawsuit was brought 15 years after the alleged acts took place and 13 years after he first disclosed the alleged abuse to his mother and to law enforcement officials.

The limitations period for these sorts of claims usually are a few years — anywhere from 2 to 4. Gomez' attorneys contend that Gomez developed "various psychological coping mechanisms and symptoms of psychological distress, including great shame, guilt, self-blame, depression, repression and disassociation" which rendered him "unable to discover both the injury and the causal relationship between the injury and the abuse"

I'm not sure a judge is going to buy that argument, especially since Gomez apparently was able to understand what had happened to him two years after the fact, when he told his mom and the cops about what the priest allegedly had done to him. And even if Gomez had trouble understanding it all, surely his mother should have known back in 1989 that she had a right to sue on her son's behalf.

The Gomez lawsuit also has a standing problem. Unless the plaintiff can prove that the Church knew or should have known that this particular priest was a sex-abuser, it will be difficult for them to win on their claim that the Holy See failed to protect him from that priest. And even if it is true that the Church moved the priest to another jurisdiction after it became aware that he had abused Gomez, it would be up to another victim, if there is one, to bring such a claim against the Church.

In other words, by the time the Church allegedly transferred the priest, the damage to Gomez was done and surely the Church and the priest cannot be found liable for the fact that local law enforcement officials in Florida decided not to spend the time and money getting their hands on the priest in New Jersey.

If the Gomez lawsuit seems legally weak, however, it's monumentally stronger than another Church-related lawsuit filed recently in state court in New Jersey.

In this class-action case alleging a variety of claims, including conspiracy, the plaintiffs contend that it was the policy of the Church "to tolerate the presence and keep secret the identities of pedophiles and other sexual offenders who are or had been functioning Roman Catholic priests."

But the alleged abuse took place in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and the complaint does not explain why any claims arising from those alleged acts weren't brought to court then.

What the complaint does allege, however, is that the Church in its various forms was part of a conspiracy designed to conceal illegal conduct. But that begs the question of why a civil lawsuit, as opposed to a criminal complaint handled by a prosecutor, is an appropriate way to ensure a remedy for such conduct.

It's understandable why people who allegedly have suffered deplorable acts at the hands of the Church and its priests would want to try to find a way to find justice and vindication. And it is understandable, in a far more cynical way, why the recent slew of news reports about sex abuse and the Church would prompt a new group of plaintiffs and plaintiff's attorneys to step forward and raise claims against an ever-widening circle of defendants.

But the law cannot be all things to all people and it certainly isn't designed to make good on claims based upon long-ago acts brought against far-away entities.

Remember, there's law and there's justice and sometimes the two don't meet.