• The Catholic Church and Sex Abuse Cases 
  • November 4, 2009 | Author: Richard T. Meehan
  • Law Firm: Meehan, Meehan & Gavin, LLP - Bridgeport Office
  •     “Respondeat Superior” and the Catholic Church—part of the Latin Mass from the Church’s rich tradition? No, it is the doctrine of vicarious liability that has forced the Catholic Church to pay millions in settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse. Recently, this sordid chapter in the Church’s history has made news when the United States Supreme Court refused to grant a stay in the efforts to unseal over 12,000 pages of court records in the Bridgeport Diocese sexual abuse cases. The Diocese fought to keep sealed the records of the cases that led to more than 21 million dollars in settlements. Four news organizations have battled to unseal the files, citing the public’s right to know. Some victims’ rights advocates have hailed the rulings, although that appears short sighted to me. Unsealing these files not only exposes the intimate details that have rocked the Church but also unmasks many of the victims whose lives have been devastated.

        The Diocese of Bridgeport was not alone in this. The Hartford Diocese paid over 22 million in claims and the Diocese of Norwich has also paid millions for the sexual escapades of its clergy. The question arises: why does the Church as an institution have responsibility? Aren’t these the acts of a few rogue clerics who violated their sacred oaths of celibacy and human morality? Church doctrine certainly condemns this type of conduct, not only by its priests but also the laity. The centerpiece of the institutional exposure of the Catholic Church, throughout the country, is the doctrine of Respondeat Superior (Latin for “Let the master answer”) otherwise known as vicarious liability.

        In the common law this was known as the master-servant rule; i.e., the master is responsible for the wrongs of his servant. In modern times “Employer” has been substituted for the master and “employee” for the servant. The rule is not without its limits. It does not create an absolute warranty for all the actions of an employee. Not all wrongs committed by the employee become the financial responsibility of the employer. Under current civil law the tortious (civil wrong) act must be committed by one acting as the agent of another, and within the scope of employment.  Generally those actions must be within the confines of the employee’s duties. This does not mean that the Church, in these cases, had to have directed the priests in their wrongful acts. Rather, the acts must have been committed by the priests in the apparent discharge of their functions.

        So many of these cases involved either penitents seeking comfort or altar servers and other children with close personal relationships with the clergy. The clerics then used those relationships to recruit and seduce their young victims. Few if any involved physical harm. The greater damage was a loss of faith and the emotional devastation that these victims dragged through difficult chapters of their adult lives. 

        Such acts of abuse were never accompanied by public displays. The mere fact that the abuser wore the outward trappings of a priest, the cassock or collar, in and of itself, did not give rise to the exposure of the institutional Church. Had the Church hierarchy been unaware of the conduct of an abuser that Diocese would not have been exposed to vicarious liability. What these lawsuits displayed was a callous posture of ignoring the warnings that its priests were predators, often transferring an offender from one parish to another after complaints had arisen. What the unsealing of these records will do is expose the full facts about the archaic practices of the Church when it became aware that a priest was acting inappropriately.

    Richard T. Meehan, Jr., is a senior partner in the law firm of Meehan, Meehan & Gavin, LLP, Bridgeport, CT.  For more information on Mr. Meehan or his firm you can access them at www.meehanlaw.com or www.ctdentalmalpracticelawyer.com, or email him at [email protected].