Vatican, US bishops face class-action lawsuit from victims of clergy sex abuse

Pope Francis at the General Audience in St. Peter's Square, May 2, 2018. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.
Pope Francis at the General Audience in St. Peter's Square, May 2, 2018. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

.- The U.S. bishops' conference and the Holy See face a class action lawsuit filed by six men who claim they were sexually abused by Catholic clergy during their childhoods. They are seeking financial damages as well as public contrition and reparation from the Church.

The 80-page suit filed Nov. 13 claims that the Vatican and the bishops knew about - and covered up for - the “endemic, systemic, rampant, and pervasive rape and sexual abuse” of the plaintiffs and others at the hands of active members of the clergy, religious orders, and other Church representatives.

The suit opens by invoking two passages of Scripture: “(B)ut people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed,” and: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather, expose them.”

Rather than protect the plaintiffs, the lawsuit says Church leaders protected and - “incredibly” - promoted the offenders.

These kinds of “wrongful actions, inaction, omissions, cover-up, deception, and concealment” create a “conspiracy of silence to their financial and reputational benefit and to Plaintiffs’ and Class Members’ personal, mental, psychological, and financial detriment.” These actions are “ongoing and continuous” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. by four attorneys representing six individuals who lived in six different states at the time the abuse occurred - Iowa, California, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. It does not specifically detail the cases of abuse reportedly suffered by the individuals.

The attorneys who filed the suit are Mitchell Toups, Richard Coffman, Joe Whatley Jr., and Henry Quillen, who have previous experience with similar lawsuits on behalf of victims of clerical sex abuse.

Coffman, one of two attorneys on the case from Beaumont, Texas, told the Beaumont Enterprise that he has been watching the unfolding of the recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and felt the “time was right” to file this lawsuit.

“(S)omething needs to be done about this problem," he told the Enterprise.

"There's just a louder and louder outcry going on across the United States for the Catholic church to do something about this situation," Coffman added.

The lawsuit was filed during the autumn plenary assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore, during which the bishops voted down a proposal that would have “encouraged” the Vatican to “release soon” all documents related to the allegations of misconduct against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose case has been at the center of the abuse scandals in the Church in the U.S. that have unfolded over the past five months.

At the beginning of the meeting, president of the conference Cardinal Daniel DiNardo also announced a Vatican order that the bishops not vote on any proposed solutions to the abuse crisis until a meeting in Rome in February with other bishops' conferences, a move that the lawsuit said was merely “kicking the can down the road again.”

Several U.S. bishops expressed their disappointment with the order, and the sex abuse crisis still featured as a prominent point of discussion at the meeting, though no action was taken.

The suit also claims that the bishops and the Vatican violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, aimed at organized crime, because the bishops engaged in federal mail fraud and wire fraud in the cover-up of abuse. The Catholic Church in the U.S. is an “unincorporated association” and therefore qualifies as an organization that can be held to RICO standards, it states.

The plaintiffs are seeking “compensatory damages, economic damages, punitive damages, RICO treble damages, medical monitoring, pre- and post-judgment interest, and attorneys’ fees, litigation expenses, and court costs.”

They also seek relief that would compel the Vatican and the bishops to “comply with various state statutes requiring them to report the abusive Clergy to law enforcement or other responsible authorities, terminate the abusive Clergy, identify the abusive Clergy to the general public so that parents may protect their children going forward, release documents evidencing such Clergy abuse to achieve transparency, and such other relief the Court deems just and proper.”

Spokespersons for the USCCB have told several media outlets that the conference will not comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation.

Tags: Catholic News, Lawsuits, Clerical sex abuse, Vatican news