Vatican Revises Procedures for Handling Sexual Abuse in Wake of Scandals

As a result of the seemingly endless tales of child sexual abuse coming out of the Catholic Church, the Vatican has finally taken action, revising the church laws governing sexual abuse.

Under the new laws, the statute of limitations for bringing a lawsuit within a church tribunal is extended from 10 to 20 years, and in certain cases it may be waived entirely. The modifications also make it clear that the penalties for sexual abuse of minors apply not only to priests, but also to cardinals, bishops and other church officials.

Laypeople may now serve as judges and lawyers in church sex abuse cases, and there is no longer a requirement that judges have a doctorate in canon law. The scope of crimes related to sexual abuse has also been expanded; acquiring, possessing or distributing child pornography is now a “grave crime” under church law.

Additionally, the process of “laicization,” or formal removal from the priesthood, has become faster.

The Worldwide Scandals

These revisions come in the wake of incredible worldwide scandal, the full extent of which remains unknown. Most recently, reports have focused on Germany, where Bishop Walter Mixa resigned as the bishop of Augsburg because of church scandals. A Jesuit investigation earlier this year revealed decades of systemic abuse and attempts at hiding this abuse in Germany.

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict apologized to the victims of child sexual abuse by members of the Irish clergy. This apology arrived after two separate groups released reports indicating that priests abused Irish children in Catholic-run institutions for decades and Church authorities attempted to cover up these incidents until the mid-90s.

In Belgium, the bishop of Bruges resigned earlier this year after admitting that he had sexually abused a young boy more than 20 years ago.

In Switzerland, the reports of abuse are just beginning to appear; according to the bishops’ conference, between January and May of 2010, the bishops received reports of 104 victims abused at the hands of 72 different perpetrators. This is a significant jump from the year before; in 2009, only 15 victims came forward in the country.

These are just a few of the countries with recent actions on this matter. The full extent of the problem remains unknown – and may never be known. Many victims of sexual abuse remain uncomfortable reporting these abuses, even decades later. Without complete reports, it is difficult to know just how many people have been affected by abuse within the Catholic Church.

The Effects of These Revisions

Not everyone is satisfied with these revisions. According to the National Catholic Reporter, although the Vatican claims that these changes constitute a major contribution toward “rigor and transparency,” critics allege that the changes amount to “mere tweaking.”

Furthermore, these revisions are of little consolation to the children who have suffered abuse as the hands of priests or other members of the clergy. Although the revisions may make it more difficult for priests with a known history of abuse to hide in the church, nothing can remove the damage these priests have inflicted.

Notably, these laws do not replace any civil or criminal actions outside of the church. Priests responsible for the sexual assault of minors can still face criminal prosecution. In New York, the victims of sexual abuse may also pursue civil actions against their abusers. For more information about legal actions arising from child sexual abuse, speak with an experienced attorney in New York.

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Tragic Case of Abuse Serves as Reminder to be Vigilant

Nursing home abuse often sounds like a scene from a movie or a tale of folklore, but for many families it is a sad reality. A shocking case of suspected abuse recently captured on video serves as a reminder for us all that nursing home abuse is an issue against which we need remain vigilant.

On the video, a nurse appears to jerk a wheelchair out from underneath an elderly patient. The 85-year-old patient who suffers from dementia was tossed from the wheelchair, suffering a broken hip. Worse yet, the nurse appears to walk away from the injured patient, not once, but twice, as the patient lays on the ground in pain.

After a couple of minutes the video shows another employee approach the injured patient. However, this employee appears to wait another minute before helping the injured patient. Having the whole incident caught on camera will allow the nursing home to discipline those involved, if in fact they are found guilty of abuse.

The nursing home has a video system in place for the protection of the patients and staff. The administrator of the nursing home where this incident occurred stated: “Our video system, which is in place throughout our center, assists us in providing our patients the best treatment and care available.”

Unfortunately, the video system was not able to protect the injured patient in this instance. Hopefully the recording of this event may be used to protect the safety of the other patients — prompting other facilities to install surveillance cameras for everyone’s protection.

Signs of Nursing Home Abuse and Neglect

While this shocking case of suspected abuse was captured on videotape, it may be more difficult to discover if a loved one is experiencing abuse. A loved one may not reveal abuse when it is present. A patient may fear retaliation or increased abuse, or may be physically unable to report the abuse due to illness or mental limitations.

Abuse and neglect can manifest in many forms, including physical, emotional and psychological abuse. Even if you do not suspect your loved one is currently being abused by a care facility, it is always important to be aware of the signs of abuse.

The Elder Abuse Foundation suggests looking for the following signs of abuse:

  • Bed sores
  • Frozen joints
  • Unexplained injuries, including bruises, fractures, burns or sprains
  • Sudden change in behavior
  • Missing possessions
  • Change in banking practices or unexplained large withdrawals
  • Sudden change in will
  • Staff refusing or delaying visits or not allowing visitors to be alone with resident

If it is suspected that a loved one is being abused or neglected in a nursing home or other care facility, take action immediately. For questions concerning abuse, neglect or nursing home safety, speak with a personal injury attorney experienced in nursing home and elder abuse.

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Example of Clergy Abuse

The Rev. John J. Geoghan died in prison in 2003, killed by a fellow inmate. No longer a priest at the time of his death, Geoghan had been convicted in 2002 of groping a 10 year-old boy in a public swimming pool in Waltham, Massachusetts. When Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin handed down the maximum allowable sentence, she clearly noted that Geoghan’s crimes went far beyond the one incident. The ex-priest, she said, was a danger to any young boy unfortunate enough to come in contact with him.

Prior to his conviction, Geoghan had been transferred among six different parishes and accused of molesting more than 130 boys over three decades. By the time he was brought to justice, the Catholic Church could no longer conceal the scandal within its midst. Although the majority of abusive acts by priests occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, a third of all allegations, many of them more than 20 years old, were not reported until 2002-2003. The notorious Father Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, was never investigated, tried or disciplined by the church’s justice system. At least three successive archbishops were informed of the abuse but never reported it. Complaints by Father Murphy’s numerous victims were ignored by police and prosecutors. In 1974, Murphy was quietly transferred to a diocese in northern Wisconsin, leaving him free to roam among children in schools, parishes, and even a juvenile detention center. When he died in 1998, he was still a priest.

In 1985, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe was sentenced to 20 years in a Louisiana prison for molesting at least 35 children. The ensuing outcry prompted more people to come forward with charges of sex abuse against priests. But it wasn’t until 1992 that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops set forth policy recommendations for handling such cases. Over the next decade, while the issue seemed to disappear from public view, church lawyers were quietly settling lawsuits, compensating victims and reassigning many of the priests to new parishes. The scandal re-ignited with the Geoghan case in 2002. By 2011, times had, indeed, changed. Following charges of sex abuse against parochial school teachers in Philadelphia, a grand jury indicted Msgr. William Lynn for child endangerment. It was the first time that a senior church official in the U.S. had been charged with covering up a sex abuse scandal.

Despite “zero tolerance” guidelines adopted by U.S. bishops in 2002, the Catholic Church remains divided between those who favor the protection of priests and church officials above all others and those who support openness and accountability. To date, the Catholic Church has paid out an estimated $2 billion in settlements. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee (Father Murphy’s old haunt) has been flooded by 550 restitution claims for sex abuse. It has already paid out over $30 million in settlements and court costs and has filed for bankruptcy. Seven other dioceses across the U.S have filed for bankruptcy since clergy sex abuse claims erupted in 2002, from Wilmington, Delaware to Fairbanks, Alaska.

It is common for those who abuse children to seek out opportunities for easy access and cover. It is no surprise, therefore, that such individuals can be found among coaches, teachers, youth leaders, pediatricians, priests, ministers and rabbis. The Boy Scouts of America paid out $18.5 million in 2010 to a former scout abused by an assistant scout leader. The lawsuit revealed secret files, maintained by the Scouts for more than 70 years, documenting sex abuse claims against troop leaders and volunteers. In the wake of sex abuse charges in college sports programs, attempts have been made in the New York State legislature to revise the statute of limitations on civil claims. Currently, civil actions for child sex abuse are limited to 5 years after the event has been reported to the police or 5 years after the victim turns 18. Proposed measures include a one-year window to allow for filing of previously barred claims. The revisions have been consistently blocked by churches, synagogues, schools and municipalities who fear the burden and expense of increasing their potential liability.

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Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal Serves as Warning to New York Schools

Penn State University has been reeling from the Gerald Sandusky sex abuse scandal – a past assistant coach at the university. As a result of the scandal, President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno are no longer with the University.

The famed football program, that recently made Paterno the coach with the most wins in Division I college football, has been tainted by allegations that officials knew of Sandusky’s sexual assaults for years and were ignored.

The Sandusky Grand Jury Report

A grand jury indictment issued in November brought to light the allegations of sexual abuse by Sandusky dating back to 1994. Eight victims were listed, detailing various incidents of abuse by Sandusky on boys, some apparently as young as 8-years-old.

The allegations led to the departure of Spanier and Paterno, as the grand jury report indicates various incidents were reported to them, but the University applied only trivial sanctions to Sandusky – such as taking away his keys to the locker room. A particular incident in 2002 that was personally reported to Paterno by the witness resulted in no formal investigation, and law enforcement authorities were never notified.

While the criminal prosecution against Sandusky is progressing, there exists the likelihood of civil litigation. If and when civil litigation is commenced, it currently appears that a voluntary attempt by Penn State to resolve the matter with the victims might be the safest path to take for the school, as the discovery process that would follow the commencement of formal litigation could be extremely damning given the number of unknown variables – unknowns such as how many alleged victims, how long did the alleged abuse go on, what did the officials at Penn State know and when did they know it.

Ultimately, this scandal has forever tarnished the reputation of the university and Paterno’s career as coach – and if the allegations are proven true, don’t forget that this scandal has also severely scarred innocent children.

Risk in New York of Vicarious Liability

Every school in New York should use this case as a wake-up call to ensure that all of their policies and procedures for dealing with incidents of sexual assault in school are in place and functional in order to protect students.

Clearly the best policy is to prevent these cases from occurring in the first place. Penn State probably felt they had appropriate systems in place to prevent and deal with these issues. Every institution, from kindergarten to graduate school, needs to review their training, reporting and investigative processes.

In New York, an employer is generally not vicariously liable for an employee’s assault unless it was done in the furtherance of the employers business and was incidental to the employee’s activities – which New York courts have held even applies in cases of sexual assault or abuse. If the Sandusky case were to be tried in New York, Penn State would obviously argue that his actions were not in furtherance of its business, and thus not liable.

Negligent Hiring, Retention or Supervision in New York

New York law does contain additional legal theories in which to hold employer liable for the acts of employees – namely the theories of negligent hiring, negligent retention or negligent supervision. Under New York law, employers are required to avoid hiring or retaining employees who the employer knows – or in the exercise of reasonable care, should know – are unfit and likely to assault persons they come in contact with. However, if there is no negligence on the part of the employer in hiring or retaining the employee, the employer will not be liable for an assault simply because they hired a dangerous person.

Again using the Sandusky case as an example, there are currently no allegations that Penn State was aware of alleged sexual assaults by Sandusky prior to his employment, but there are ample allegations that they knew, or at least should have known, about the alleged incidents while he was working there.

Some of the most damning evidence of Penn State’s lack of process was the 2002 incident, where a graduate assistant claimed to have witnessed a Sandusky rape a boy in the Penn State locker room on a Friday night in the beginning of March.

The assistant allegedly spoke in person with Joe Paterno the following morning, detailing the incident and Paterno waited until Sunday to call Penn State athletic director Tim Curley. In mid-March, the assistant was first questioned by Curley, who allegedly told the assistant the school would look in to it.

Allegedly, near the end of the March, the assistant was informed by Curley that Sandusky’s locker room keys were taken and Sandusky was reported to Second Mile – Sandusky’s charity.

Because of these allegations, in could be argued that Penn State had notice of Sandusky’s behavior from 1998 and 2002, yet he still had emeritus status and use of an office and Penn State facilities. A New York Times article noted he was a regular presence for “years after the 2002 incident.” What will be especially damning for Penn State was the alleged number of various officials of the university who were on notice concerning Sandusky’s behavior, and their alleged failure to treat it with the seriousness it demanded.

Obviously this article only scratches the surface regarding legal issues that may arise during the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, and as such should not be taken as legal advice. However, schools everywhere, including New York, should heed the warning and do what they can to protect not only their students but all children from sexual abuse.

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Children in Foster Care Report Higher Rates of Sexual Abuse

A carefree childhood should not be considered a luxury. Children should not have to live their life in fear of their caregivers, which is unfortunately what sometimes occurs when children are placed in foster care.

Generally, studies find that children do best when they are raised by their natural parents, but this ideal arrangement is not possible when neglected or abused children are removed from their homes and enter the foster care system. Unfortunately for these already mistreated children, foster care often perpetuates their dreadful treatment – as recent studies have found a higher prevalence of sexual abuse when children reside in foster care.

A Baltimore study concluded that children in foster care suffered four times higher rates of sexual abuse than the general population. Another study, conducted in Indiana, found three times more physical abuse and twice the rate of sexual abuse in foster homes when compared with the general population. On further examination of the higher rates of abuse in foster care, it was discovered that often times it is the children themselves that are abusing each other.

Unreported Abuse

Even though child abuse is now discussed more openly than in the past, with more child victims and adults who were abused as children coming forward, there is still a large number of victims who never report these crimes. Child abuse is a hidden and deeply rooted problem. Children often suffer quietly, allowing abusers to continue to victimize other children with impunity.

Children and adults are often hesitant to report sexual assaults that occur during their childhood. The reluctance to disclose abuse may be caused by the shame an older child might feel. Also, many children are terrified the abuser will hurt them if they disclose the abuse. Moreover, a child might also fear they will lose the love of someone special or be forced to leave their family or move to a different foster home.

Problems with Delayed Sexual Abuse Reporting

If you were a victim of sexual abuse as a child, you have the right to bring a civil lawsuit against the person who committed the abuse and anyone who could have prevented the abuse. But you only have a certain amount of time to bring a lawsuit. In New York, victims have five years to bring a sexual abuse claim. If you were abused as a child, you can bring a lawsuit until the age of 23 (the five year limitations period begins when you turn 18).

Recent legislation seeks to change the limitations period. According to the proposed changes, the five year limitations period would start at the age of 23 instead of 18. This would allow a victim until the age of 28 to file a sexual abuse lawsuit. Passage, however, of this legislation, is very problematic.

If you were abused as a child, you need to consult with an experienced attorney. Discussing past abuse is sensitive and an attorney will be able to help you by advising you as to your rights and options.

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