Sexual Assault by Clergy

Sexual predators are not always those we initially suspect. This has been shown time and again in recent year revelations that trusted clergy members – priests, pastors, imams, rabbis and more – violated trust and sexually abused or assaulted parishioners, too often children. These are individuals we expect to guide and comfort us, offer wisdom and insight and help us understand deeper truths. Yet we have seen far too many cases of sexual assault by clergy.

At The Ansara Law Firm, our Fort Lauderdale sex assault attorneys are dedicated to fighting for the rights and best interests of sexual abuse by religious leaders. We recognize that filing a lawsuit can have one feeling isolated and vulnerable, but know too that fighting for accountability is empowering, and it also reduces the chance the individuals and institutions involved will go on to hurt others the same way.

Although the sexual misconduct of Roman Catholic priests with children and minors has drawn perhaps the most attention on this front in recent years, the reality is sexual misconduct isn’t limited to any particular denomination or faith tradition. Although it very often involves children, adults have also been targeted, typically arising out of counseling relationships.

Florida is among most states in lacking penal statutes specifically criminalizing sexual misconduct by clergypersons, and there is no “clergy malpractice” cause of action in the civil justice system. Courts have largely rejected any role in setting standards for clergy. However, victims of sexual abuse, assault or molestation by religious leaders can seek civil liability. Many of these claims are pursued as a “breach of fiduciary duty.”

Breach of Fiduciary Duty and Other Causes of Action

As noted by the Florida Bar, a fiduciary duty may arise either expressly or impliedly. An express fiduciary duty would arise by contract, where both parties agree to a relationship (think attorney-client privilege). However, most civil lawsuits against religious leaders for sexual misconduct are based on an implied fiduciary duty, where one relies on another to act on their behalf or look out for their best interests. There is typically a factual allegation of dependency (by the victim) and undertaking (by the religious leader/ institution) to counsel, advise, protect or benefit the dependent party.

For a fiduciary relationship to exist, there needs to be an interaction that creates trust and reliance, allowing one party to occupy a superior position to another. There is an inherent imbalance of power involved, and typically where influence is acquired and then abused. Although clergy-parishioner relationships are not fiduciary per se, they can be when there is an interaction that creates trust and reliance between the two parties, often the basis for a confidential relationship that can become fiduciary.

Many of these claims also include allegations that the religious institution somehow knew or should have known their employee’s dangerous propensity to engage in sexual misconduct. These causes of action may include:

  • Negligent hiring;
  • Negligent retention;
  • Negligent supervision.

We saw an example of this in the 2002 Florida Supreme Court decision in Doe v. Evans, where the court allowed a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit in a case dealing with marriage counseling by a clergyman. The allegation was the clergyman provided spiritual advice and counseling to parishioners having marital difficulties, and that the clergyman initiated a personal relationship with plaintiff that became romantic. Plaintiff alleged the clergyman directly solicited her trust and confidence and then breached that duty by becoming romantically involved with her and failing to keep her interests paramount. She alleged the defendant church breached their duty because they became aware early in the counseling process that defendant clergyman was abusing his position of trust and did nothing to protect her.

The court agreed the clergyman and the parishioner had a fiduciary relationship and rejected the defense that these claims were barred by the First Amendment. The church tried to argue that the law separating church and state and barring courts from resolving internal church disputes and questions of religious doctrine. However, the court held the parishioner’s claims didn’t violate the church’s constitutional rights because imposing tort liability holds a secular purpose, and the primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion.

Statutes of Limitations

In general, you have four years from the time of the incident or abuse to file a claim. However, it’s different for child victims of sexual abuse, thanks to a 2010 law change by Florida legislators. The language can be a bit confusing, which is why it’s important to discuss your options with a sexual assault attorney in South Florida.

Previously, the statute of limitations in Florida for civil claims by minors who were sexually abused required that claims be filed on or before one’s 22nd birthday. However, an amendment to F.S. 95.11 provides no time limit for a civil cause of action for sexual battery (as defined in F.S. 794.011) when the victim was under 16 at the time of the offense.

That means the possible liability exposure for sexual battery of a child under 16 never expires.

Contact The Ansara Law Firm for more information about pursuing a civil claim for damages after sexual assault, abuse or molestation. Call us at (888) ANSARA-8 for a free case review.

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