Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

Continuing revelations about sexual abuse by priests and other clergy have led to thousands of lawsuits against the Catholic Church in recent years. While other denominations have also been implicated in sexual abuse scandals, the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of media stories given its size, influence and ability to hide the actions of perpetrators within its ranks.

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Can You Sue the Catholic Church for Sexual Abuse?

In many cases, survivors of clergy abuse can file a personal injury lawsuit against the church. Parents of children who are molested or otherwise assaulted by church officials may also be able to file a lawsuit on their child’s behalf.

Note that each state has its own deadline (called a statute of limitations) for filing church abuse lawsuits. Because of the physical, mental and emotional trauma caused by sexual abuse, some states have recently increased their statutes of limitations, allowing victims more time to file. However, other states give abuse survivors only a short amount of time to submit a claim. It is always better to start the process sooner rather than later, to make sure you don’t lose your legal right to compensation due to a deadline.

Note that some states allow extensions of the statute of limitations, such as based when information about the abuse was discovered (known as the “discovery rule”), especially in cases of fraudulent concealment where details about the abuse were hidden by the church. Some states also allow the statute of limitations to be delayed for a certain amount of time (known as “tolling”), which gives victims more time to pursue legal action.

Selected Statutes of Limitations for Sexual Assault of a Minor

StateCriminal StatuteCivil Statute
CaliforniaNo limitVictim’s 26th birthday
Connecticut30 years from victim’s 18th birthdayVictim’s 48th birthday
IllinoisVaries depending on age of the child20 years after discovery
MassachusettsNo limitUp to 35 years after the abuse, or 7 years after discovery of injury caused by the abuse
NebraskaNo limitVictim’s 33rd birthday
New JerseyNo limit2 years after discovery of the abuse
New YorkVictim’s 23rd birthdayVictim’s 55th birthday
PennsylvaniaVictim’s 50th birthdayVictim’s 30th birthday
Rhode IslandNo limitWithin 7 years of the abuse or discovery of the abuse (time limit begins at age 18)
TexasVictim’s 33rd birthday (15 years from the date the victim turns 18)
Note: If your state is not listed here, get a free case evaluation to see whether you are able to file a clergy sexual abuse lawsuit.

Racketeering Claims in Church Abuse Lawsuits

At least one recent lawsuit has made claims under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, often referred to as RICO. Although RICO laws were originally intended for use in prosecuting well-organized criminal enterprises, some plaintiffs claim its provisions apply to the Catholic Church as well, given the religious organization’s attempts to bury reports of abuse and transfer priests accused of assault from one diocese to another.

RICO allegations are not unprecedented. In the 1990s, a multimillion-dollar verdict was awarded to victims of abuse against the Diocese of Camden in New Jersey using RICO claims. If the Catholic Church is found liable under the RICO Act, plaintiffs could receive three times as much in compensation (known as “treble damages”) as they would under a standard civil lawsuit.

Sexual Abuse Lawsuits Against the Catholic Church

Many sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church have been filed over the years. However, a 2002 exposé in the Boston Globe led to the arrest of five Catholic priests in the Boston area and brought widespread attention to the problem of abuse by church leaders, with similar stories coming to light across the U.S. Since then, thousands of victims have come forward with their own stories of abuse, some of whom have gone on to file lawsuits against the Catholic Church.

Class-Action Lawsuits Against the Catholic Church

In November 2018, two separate class-action lawsuits were filed against the Catholic Church. Because they were filed in the United States, the suits named the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as the primary defendant, with one of the lawsuits also naming the Holy See at the Vatican as a secondary defendant.

The first class-action lawsuit was filed by Timothy Lennon – president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) – and five others in federal court. The 80-page complaint covers numerous claims, including the repeated failure of the church to address clergy abuse against children, a pattern of unlawful activity that violated federal and international laws, various forms of negligence, conspiracy, and allegations of sexual abuse, assault, aiding and abetting, and wrongful death, among others. This lawsuit used allegations of federal mail and wire fraud statutes as a basis for seeking damages under the RICO Act.

The second class-action lawsuit was filed in the District of Minnesota by Joseph McLean and five others from various states. Much shorter than the Lennon complaint at only 18 pages, the McLean lawsuit focuses heavily on the individual abuses suffered by the six plaintiffs at the hands of Catholic clergy members, as well as the role of the USCCB in covering up the actions of delinquent priests. The McLean lawsuit primarily accuses the USCCB of violating nuisance laws through its wrongdoing and conspiracy to conceal criminal acts from the public. In support of its allegations, the lawsuit points to claims of negligence, deception, and malicious acts that led to the plaintiffs’ abuse and ongoing abuse suffered by class members. In addition to monetary damages, the McLean lawsuit seeks to force the USCCB to release the names of all clergy who have been accused of child abuse.

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Other Clergy Abuse Lawsuits

While the total number of claims against the U.S. Catholic Church is unknown, more than 6,700 priests and other members of the clergy have been accused of abuse between 1950 and 2016, according to data compiled by the nonprofit BishopAccountability.org. However, only about half of the names of those accused priests have been released to the public.

Catholic Church Sex Abuse Settlements

$3 billion
in settlements paid by the Catholic Church in the U.S. for child sexual abuse lawsuitsNPR

According to a report by National Public Radio, the Catholic Church has paid more than $3 billion in child sexual abuse lawsuit settlements in America alone. As a result, at least 19 diocese and religious orders have had to file for bankruptcy, including some which run boarding and parochial schools. Some of the most notable settlements are described below.

Archdiocese of Los Angeles: $660 Million

The largest overall Catholic Church sexual abuse settlement was $660 million, which resolved the claims of 508 victims in and around Los Angeles, CA. Given that the Archdiocese of LA is the largest in the country, it might not be surprising that it also has had to pay the most. Individual claimants received an average of $1.3 million apiece as part of the settlement, before legal fees.

The Archdiocese of LA had previously settled several other cases totaling $114 million, bringing the total amount of settlements for the archdiocese to $774 million to resolve 570 cases total. Part of the 2007 settlement was paid for by insurers. The church also sold its Archdiocesan Catholic Center for $31 million to help cover the settlement amount.

Archdiocese of Boston: $85 Million

Although less money than the LA settlement, the $85 million settlement by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003 resolved nearly 550 cases. Plaintiffs received between $80,000 and $300,000 apiece, based on the amount and duration of the abuse they suffered. The Boston Catholic Church also paid for psychological counseling for the victims of sexual abuse.

The Archdiocese of Boston was at the forefront of news coverage from the Boston Globe that broke the story of clergy abuse that had been going on for decades. While lawsuits and settlements had occurred previously, the Catholic Church had managed to kept those incidents relatively quiet. Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the Archbishop of Boston, was accused of participating in a coverup, even to the point of transferring priests from parish to parish in an attempt to avoid scandal. Cardinal Law also resisted attempts to settle sexual abuse cases until he resigned in 2002 in the wake of the Boston Globe’s spotlight report.

The new archbishop, Sean Patrick O’Malley, was appointed to the Archdiocese of Boston seven months later, in part due to his experience with settling Catholic Church sexual abuse cases in Palm Beach, FL, and Fall River, MA. O’Malley made settling the Boston sexual abuse lawsuits a priority, starting with an offer of $55 million and eventually raising it to $85 million after negotiations with the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Brooklyn Diocese: $27.5 million

In September 2018, the Diocese of Brooklyn agreed to a $27.5 million settlement with four men who were sexually abused as children by a volunteer afterschool program teacher between 2003 and 2009. Catholic officials denied that the diocese should be held responsible for the volunteer’s abuse, especially since some of the incidents took place in the abuser’s apartment. However, a judge ruled in favor of the four plaintiffs, concluding that church clergy and staff ignored signs that abuse was occurring.

Seeing the potential for a large verdict, and facing increased pressure from state authorities investigating allegations of abuse, the Diocese of Brooklyn decided to settle the four lawsuits. In February 2019, the diocese published a list of priests accused of sexual abuse, many of whom are deceased or have been defrocked.

Recent Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Settlements

View Catholic Church Settlement Amounts
YearLocationAmount# Victims
2003 – 2018San Francisco, CA$87.2 million125
2008 – 2018New Jersey$60 million90+
1953 – 2018Bridgeport, CT$52 million156
2018St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN$210 million450
2018Joliet, IL$1.4 million3
2018Great Falls-Billings, MT$20 million86
2018Seattle, WA$7 million6
2017New York City, NY$40 million189
2017Hudson Valley, NY$1.5 million6
2017Chicago, IL$4.45 million3
2016Savannah, GA$4.5 million1
2016Buffalo, NY$1.5 million1
2016Gallup, NM$21 million55
2016Boston, MA$778,50010
2016Portland, ME$1.2 million6
2016Seattle, WA$9.1 million8
Sources: The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today, Seattle Times, San Francisco Examiner, Hartford Courant, Buffalo News, NJ101.5, Montana Public Radio, and other media reports. See full list of sources below.

Pennsylvania Survivors’ Compensation Program

In some areas, victims of sexual abuse might have other options for seeking compensation. For example, the Archdiocese of Pennsylvania has set up a settlement fund for those who were sexually abused by priests as a child. Known as the Survivors’ Compensation Program, this fund allows claimants to submit claims directly to the church and receive a settlement without going to court. Those who enroll in the program will sign away their rights to sue the Catholic Church later.

Pennsylvania is one of several states considering legislation that would create a “window to justice,” similar to New York’s Child Victims Act, that could allow victims to file civil lawsuits against sexual abusers, even if the statute of limitations has passed, it may be better for victims to wait rather than accepting funds under the compensation program. However, the church argues that victims will benefit from the program by receiving money right away rather than waiting through a lengthy trial, which could especially benefit older individuals who were abused as children.

If you want to know more about your eligibility for the Survivors’ Compensation Program, your ability to file a lawsuit, or other potential compensation related to past abuse, request a free case review today.

Catholic Church Lawsuit FAQs

Can I file a lawsuit against the Catholic Church?

If you or a loved one was abused by a priest, staff member, volunteer, or another person affiliated with the Catholic Church as a minor, you may be eligible to file a sexual abuse lawsuit. Many states have liberal statutes of limitations, allowing some people to file a complaint years – even decades – after the abuse occurred. However, other states have stricter deadlines, meaning it is important to start the process right away.

Can I File a Lawsuit Against Other Churches or Religious Organizations?

If you or a loved one suffered abuse at the hands of any religious leader, then you can seek compensation for your pain and suffering and other damages. Many protestant churches have been dealing with increased allegations against them in recent years as well.

Some other churches that have been accused of significant or widespread abuse in recent years include:

  • Bob Jones University
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • NewSpring Church
  • Southern Baptist Convention
  • Willow Creek Community Church

Other churches may also be liable for cases of sexual abuse against minors.

How Much Is the Average Catholic Church Lawsuit Settlement?

Compensation for sexual abuse victims varies by a wide variety of factors. Amounts and types of compensation available will be different for each individual depending on:

  • The amount, duration and severity of abuse
  • Costs of treatment for physical, emotional and mental suffering due to the abuse
  • Limits on damages set by state laws, regulations and previous precedents

According to the nonprofit advocacy organization BishopAccountability.org, the average settlement amount for victims of clergy sex abuse is approximately $268,000. However, their data does not appear to consider recent settlements, such as some of the ones listed above, nor does it include settlement amounts from protestant churches and unaffiliated religious organizations. You could be eligible to receive more than that.

How Much Does a Catholic Church Lawsuit Cost?

Typically, personal injury lawsuits (including sexual abuse cases) are filed on a contingency basis. This means that you will only have to pay legal expenses if you receive compensation. A part of the money from your settlement or verdict will be used to cover legal fees.

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