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Class Action Lawsuit Over Catholic Church Alleged Sexual Abuse, RICO Violations Filed in DC

By: Dan Hausman

On November 14, 2018, a class-action civil lawsuit was filed by Timothy B. Lennon and five other named Plaintiffs in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging 11 distinct claims against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See as the State of the Vatican City and as the Head of an International Religious Organization. The complex legal allegations span 80 pages in a document called a complaint. For comparison, a complaint in a typical lawsuit involving an automobile crash is about 4 pages long.

The allegations in the lawsuit are carefully crafted in an attempt to avoid the many legal pitfalls which have thus far made it difficult for victims of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church to hold the Vatican, itself, accountable through the civil tort system of the United States. One typical issue that helps the Vatican escape liability is that courts have found the Vatican is not legally responsible for the actions of individual clergy members or churches. In an attempt to hold the Vatican responsible, the lawsuit invokes the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and alleges the Vatican heads an unincorporated association-in-fact which cheats and defrauds the members of the Church through federal mail and wire. The fraud and deceit is alleged to be in the association holding out the clergy as “men of faith” who had Plaintiff’s and class members “best interests at heart” when in fact the Clergy took advantage of their positions of power and influence and sexually abused Plaintiffs and Class Members. The complaint goes on to allege the association “actively and fraudulently conceal[d] the Clergy’s wrongful sexual abuse” for the purpose of obtaining money, funds, credits, and other assets.

The scope of this lawsuit is grand in that it is a class-action suit that alleges “a pattern of wrongful activity” and intentional cover-up by the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. The class of Plaintiffs is “all persons and if minor children, their parents or guardians on their behalf, who were sexually abused by Catholic Church cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests, sisters, lay leaders, members of Catholic religious orders, educators… from 1940 to present.” Individual wrongdoing of all Clergy, agents, and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church is imparted to The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See through the legal concepts of Doctrine of Respondeat Superior, Agency Theory, and/or the Command Responsibility Doctrine, which allegedly make the Defendants’ responsible for the actions of the Clergy, agents, and representatives.

Another legal issue that can be used to escape liability is called the statute of limitations, which makes it so incidents that occurred prior to a certain date cannot be the subject of a lawsuit. The lawsuit also alleges the Defendants “took active steps to conceal their (and the Clergy’s) above-described wrongful actions, inaction, omissions, cover-up, deception, and concealment, obstructive behavior regarding investigations, conspiracy of silence” which makes the statute of limitation inapplicable.

All in all, this lawsuit is very interesting in the legal community and something that Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C. will be closely following as it develops. Our firm is prepared to use our experience in cases involving sexual abuse and sexual misconduct to pursue justice and help victims get compensation for their losses. If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a member of the Catholic Church you can call (202) 644-8303 or contact us online for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights and potential next steps.