Child Sexual Abuse in Religious Organizations

Memphis Sexual Assault Lawyers Handle Claims against Religious Figures

Representing West Tennessee clients who were abused by religious or spiritual leaders

While many religious leaders serve their congregations well, some take advantage of their position of trust with their congregants. Many sexual violations involve children who place their trust and confidence in priests, rabbis, deacons, ministers, imams, and other religious officials.

The Memphis sexual assault attorneys at Bailey & Greer, PLLC, have been fighting for injury victims for more than 30 years. We fight to hold all accountable parties liable for unconscionable acts and for failing to put the safety of congregants and parishioners first. Members of the Western Tennessee community attend religious services and obtain religious education in order to be spiritually connected. When religious leaders and organizations commit acts of sexual abuse or tolerate sexual misconduct, they deserve to be held accountable for the emotional harm and pain and suffering they cause.

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How sexual abuse by religious leaders occurs

Sexual abuse in places of worship can occur in different ways.

One common way is called “grooming.” When a priest, minister, pastor, deacon, rabbi, or other religious leader makes a congregant feel that he or she has been singled out for praise, the congregant often feels honored to be treated with what he or she thinks is respect. Oftentimes the honor of a one-on-one setting to personally discuss a religious topic, or to find some form of forgiveness or enlightenment, is just a ruse to take the congregant away from the group so the religious leader can be alone with the congregant. The religious leader then uses this trust to begin a sexual relationship. Grooming is the door that can lead to sexual abuse and molestation. Parents should be concerned if a child is being asked to spend time with the clergy member away from other children.

Some religious leaders shame the congregant into abuse by persuading the child or congregant that failure to perform the sexual touching or sexual act is against God’s will. Some leaders even threaten congregants/children that their reputation will be destroyed if they complain, or that they will be excommunicated if they don’t comply.

What are the signs of sexual abuse by religious leaders?

Many acts of sexual abuse involve children who take classes from religious leaders and participate in various parts of church services and functions. Children tend to place a great deal of trust in their clerics and other religious leaders so that they can make a good impression, because they believe honoring their leader can lead to salvation, and because complying with sexual requests may help them rise in the church hierarchy. Some of the signs a child is being sexually abused at a religious institution include:

  • Not wanting to attend church services or functions anymore
  • Withdrawing from any close contact with a religious leader
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Nightmares and difficult sleeping
  • Changes in hygiene and/or clothing preferences
  • Acting in a sexually aggressive way

Victims of sexual abuse by a religious leader suffer many different negative consequences including:

  • Suicide or thoughts of suicide
  • Alcohol or drug substance abuse
  • An inability to function or develop healthy relationships
  • Over-sexualization or dangerous behavior
  • Depression

Victims of sexual abuse by a religious leader often require a lifetime of psychological and mental health care.

Child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church

The Boston Globe disclosed a major sexual abuse scandal by the Catholic Church in Boston in 2002. The claims of sexual abuse involving the Catholic Church involved priests, nuns, deacons, and other religious leaders. Most, but not all, of the victims have been boys.

According to

  • As of 2016, 6,721 priests between 1950-2016, or 5.8% of the 116,690 U.S. priests active between 1950-2016 have been accused of sexual abuse.
  • Estimates of the number of victims range from 18,565 up to 320,000.
  • In some cities, more than half the parishes have been accused of having at least one sexual abuser.
  • Between 1984 and 2009, at least 3,000 lawsuits have been filed.
  • “Over $3 billion in awards and settlements have been made comprising:
    • $750 million in settlements
    • $2 billion in large settlements and awards with 3,547 survivors
    • $500 million in smaller settlements”

Child abuse and Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Atlantic reported on April 5, 2019, that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a nonprofit which oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses sent a letter to more than 10,000 US congregations and others worldwide with instructions on how to report possible child molestations by its religious leaders and organizations. The congregations were instructed to answer 12 questions, mail the results to the Watchtower headquarters, and keep confidential files.

Over the last two decades, Watchtower has built a database of names of alleged child molesters within its rank. The number of reported molesters is believed to be, according to Atlantic, in the tens of thousands. Lawsuits are now being brought to protect abused children and to force the release of the names in the database. Watchtower has settled many claims to avoid having to release the information in its database.

Additional concerns

Sexual abuse of children cases are not limited to the Catholic Church or to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Claims have also been brought against many of the leading religious institutions in the United States.

In many cases, sexual abuse charges begin with criminal charges – especially because children are involved, or they involve adults who were children when the abuse took place. Criminal charges are meant to punish the wrongdoers by removing them from the church and from society as a punishment and a deterrence for their wrongs.

Civil claims send a message to the wrongdoer and to any religious organizations that were complicit in the wrongdoing or were negligent – that there will be severe financial consequences for their actions. Civil claims also help victims obtain the compensation they need for psychological and emotional care, so they can survive these tragedies and move forward with their lives.

Liability for sexual abuse by a religious leader in Memphis

Personal injury claims can be filed, if they meet the statute of limitations deadlines, against any religious leader who commits sexual abuse. These civil charges are often in addition to criminal charges against the priest, bishop, brother, volunteer, or other religious official. Claims can also be filed against the church or religious organization for a failure to properly investigate any complaints involving the leader before the leader was hired or during his/her work with the church/religious organization. If a church covers up the wrongdoing, as many Catholic parishes did, they may also be liable for punitive damages.

Under T.C.A. §37-1-403, anyone who has knowledge of child abuse or child neglect must report his or her concerns to local law enforcement officials. This requirement applies to religious leaders and religious organizations. T.C.A. §37-1-605 applies to an “Authority figure at a community facility, including any facility used for recreation or social assemblies, for educational, religious, social, health, or welfare purposes, including, but not limited to, facilities operated by schools, the boy or girl scouts, the YMCA or YWCA, the boys and girls club, or church or religious organizations.”

You should review with your attorney whether any knowledge of sexual abuse acquired through the confessional requires reporting. In addition to negligence claims, religious organizations may be liable for a breach of contract with any congregants who pay a membership fee.

Thomas Greer Memphis Personal Injury Lawyer

Strong advocacy for victims of sexual abuse by religious leaders in West Tennessee

Claims against religious leaders generally require legal counsel. It’s important that that victims get the compensation they deserve to begin their new lives and to prevent predators from harming anyone else. At Bailey & Greer, PLLC, we understand how difficult it is to hold the people who are your religious counselors accountable for their wrongs. We provide strong representation while respecting your religious concerns and those of your child. Call our Memphis and Jackson sexual abuse lawyers to discuss your claims. You can make an appointment by calling us at 901-680-9777 or filling out our contact form.

Bailey & Greer Team