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Sexual Misconduct By Religious Leaders

Few things are more disturbing than pastors, imams, rabbis, or other religious officials who use their authority to coerce sexual favors from the people in their congregations.  As we have learned recently, “sexual misconduct” covers a wide range of actions, and in the context of official abuse, all are equally deplorable.  It’s also important to note that unpaid or unofficial church leaders are typically held to that same high standard.


In most states, even a slight bit of pressure in these situations may support a claim for damages.  In addition to the financial compensation available, these actions shed light on the issue in the church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious organization, limiting the number of future victims and sometimes forcing these groups to address the problem in a proactive manner.


Available Theories

In civil court, unlike in the court of public opinion, victims must establish more than unwanted sexual advances or innuendos in order to bring a claim for damages.  They must present evidence in support of their claims, as a sexual assault lawyer Atlanta GA relies on can attest.  Moreover, this evidence must fit a certain legal theory, such as:


  •       Fraud/Misrepresentation: If the perpetrator makes false or misleading statements to induce a certain conduct, or to convince the victim to remain silent, a remedy may be available as outlined above.
  •       Negligence: Many times, the organization either knew about the potential for injury or turned a blind eye.  Both reactions arguably fall below the standard of care, and that is the core of a negligence case.
  •       Assault or Battery: Assault can be verbal as well as nonverbal, and battery is a harmful or offensive touching.
  •       Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: If the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in an outrageous or extreme manner, and such conduct caused severe emotional distress, the actor may be liable for damages.


In most cases, both the organization and individual are responsible for damages in civil courts.  Most states apportion the damages between these defendants based on the proportion of their fault.


Possible Defenses

If both the actor and victim are adults, consent is the obvious defense.  However, consent is normally an affirmative act, and it is important that the jury understand the difference between “consent” and acceptance or assent.


If the victim was a minor, the statute of limitations may be an issue.  However, the statute of limitations, which is normally two years in these cases, does not begin running until the victim turns 18.  Moreover, under the discovery rule, the victim has two years to file a claim after the victim knows about the damage.  Many states have specifically expanded the discovery rule to cover situations involving repressed memories of prior sexual abuse.


Thanks to our contributors from Butler Tobin for their insights into sexual misconduct by religions leaders.

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