The Church Faces Litigation “Gold Rush”

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A wave of child abuse litigation is but another facet of the great crisis confronting the Church in America.
A wave of child abuse litigation is but another facet of the great crisis confronting the Church
in America.

They call it the next litigation gold rush on the horizon and it will be big business. The issue will be any child sexual abuse and the possibilities appear endless.
For now, the target is the Catholic Church which has already poured out $1 billion in damages. Many see that figure cresting at $5 billion before it is all over.

While there are cases based on solid evidence, it is also true that the political climate around the scandals has put together an explosive mixture of legal tactics, shrewd media management and public outrage that gives even the most bizarre cases a chance to win litigation rewards.

The Catholic Church is not the only target. With the media exposure and legal precedents gained during the Church scandals, just about anyone dealing with young children may soon face lawsuits. Boy scouts, day care babysitters or summer camps may all be targets of plaintiffs who could file claims based on decades-old cases unearthed from the past.

A “Wild West” Climate

In the June 9 cover story of Forbes magazine, writer Daniel Lyons relates just how big abuse litigation is. His article “Sex, God and Greed” relates how “a handful of lawyers turn child sexual abuse into big business” 1 with implications that may eventually reach tens of billions of dollars.

While the article in no way implies there are no legitimate abuse cases, it does document a legal “Wild West” atmosphere where cases that normally would have been thrown out are now proceeding through the courts with chances of success.

There are reports, for example, of lawyers armed with suspected priest abuser’s names calling up old altar boys in the hopes of finding plaintiffs. Web sites with “secure victim forms” now allow potential accusers the opportunity to click and paste their confidential application to special lawyers who will judge the merits of their cases. Other lawyers will sign up clients like draft picks providing even plane tickets to plaintiffs who will consider choosing them.

Patrick Schiltz of St. Thomas University in Minneapolis, Minn., likened the litigation frenzy to war. He says: “Phase One was for plaintiff lawyers to maximize bad publicity and destroy the credibility of the Church. Phase Two is to use that publicity to push for legislative changes.”

Phase Three is simply to reap the fruits in litigation settlements.

Changing the Law

Indeed, the first two phases are already well advanced. State legislatures across the country are loosening up the requirements for making cases. States are lifting the statures of limitations resurrecting decades-old cases. This year, California suspended the state’s statue of limitations for civil suits for child abuse cases for one year unleashing hundreds of new lawsuits.

An attempt to push back such statutes retroactively in criminal cases was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

In other states, legislative bills seeking to force priests to break the Seal of Confession for child abuse cases are also proliferating although there is absolutely no evidence that such measures will help the crisis. It will, however, undoubtedly add yet another factor in the cascade of accusations.

Cases at Court

The result has been cases recounted by Forbes, some of which border on the bizarre.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese, for example, is being sued based on an incident in 1931 involving a priest who does not even appear on Church books.

In Tucson, two women are suing the diocese not for molestation but because they claim two brothers were abused who in turn molested them.

In Louisville, a former topless dancer is suing the Church based on an improper conversation and kiss from a priest some 20 years ago.

Rockville Center Diocese faces powerball lawyers asking $1.6 billion for 11 men – one of which admits being molested once.

Five Sioux tribal members have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $25 billion in damages from the federal government on behalf of all students allegedly physically, mentally and sexually abused at government schools generally run by Catholics and other religious organizations from the late 1800s until the 1970s. Most such schools are now closed or were transferred to tribal control.

Repressed Memory

Mr. Lyons notes the most disturbing fact that at least 100 sexual abuse cases involve so-called repressed memory. Many psychologists see this syndrome as a mixture of junk science and pop psychology of the Freudian fringe.

The cases involve “memories” where the alleged victims suddenly remember clergy abuse after decades being repressed. Often an old photograph is considered enough to trigger an accusation.

Leading psychologists contest the theory as unprovable. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at University of California – Irvine has written extensively debunking the syndrome.

Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally likewise writes it off.

“The notion that the mind protects itself by banishing the most disturbing, terrifying events is psychiatric folklore,” he says. “The more traumatic and stressful something is, the less likely someone is to forget it.”

Since so many repressed memory cases are buried in the distant past, it is particularly hard for the accused to counter the alleged crimes.

Chaos among the Faithful

The child abuse litigation gold rush is but another facet of the great crisis confronting the Church in America.

On one hand, reformers have seen the scandals as a catalyst to institute systemic change inside the Church. These voices propose unacceptable “democratic” reforms that would change the way the Church has been governed for 2,000 years.

The litigation wave likewise uses the very real and tragic abuse cases inside the Church as a means to break open Church coffers with a wave of lawsuits that will deprive the Church of the means to operate and govern.

Both litigators and reformers ignore the real moral crisis that gave rise to the scandals in the first place. Few inside the Church point to a return to authentic Catholic morality and sanctity as a solution.

Only in the fullness of Church teaching can the solution to the present crisis be found. Waffling about key moral issues like homosexuality, celibacy, abortion or so many unpopular Catholic positions will only make matters worse. Until there is a true commitment to sanctity by clergy and faithful, the resulting chaos will continue to wreak havoc in souls.


  1. All the quotes, example and sources in this article are taken from the June 9, 2003 issue of Forbes.

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