Court Rejects Defense That the “Religious Teacher” Was Not an Employee
The Catholic Church has entered into one of the largest settlements involving sexual abuse by clergy members, employees, or other church-affiliated individuals. The four sex abuse victims settled for $27.5 million dollars for acts of sexual abuse by a church “volunteer” at St. Lucy-St. Patrick’s church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Prior to the Brooklyn settlement, the largest public settlement with sexual abuse survivors by the Catholic Church involved the Diocese of Rockville on Long Island for $11.45 million. The four abuse victims each will receive in excess of $6.8 million, which places the compensation at the top of the range of public recoveries paid to survivors of sexual abuse victimized by the Catholic Church.
Religious School Teacher Serving 15-Year Sentence
Angelo Serrano served as a teacher in multiple religious education programs working with children at St. Lucy’s-St. Patrick’s when the four victims were assaulted between 2003 and 2009 according to the New York Times report. The misconduct became public when a mother of one of the four victims, who range in age from 8 to 12, contacted law enforcement after her son disclosed the sexual abuse. The sexual offenses occurred while Serrano served as an instructor for catechism classes and coordinator for other religious educational programs conducted at an after-school program and at the church. The acts of abuse occurred in the church, church-related facilities, and Serrano’s home.
After Serrano’s arrest in September 2009, he pled guilty to first-degree sexual conduct. According to media sources and court documents, Serrano was arrested based on allegations he molested a 10-year old boy. Law enforcement also indicated that they were reviewing as many as 17 other sexual molestation cases against Serrano. The court sentenced Serrano to 15 years, which he currently is serving at Fishkill Correctional Facility.
The Catholic Church Contests Liability for Acts of Non-Employee
The Diocese of Brooklyn fought liability in the civil lawsuit filed by the abuse victims by denying an employment relationship between Serrano and the the Catholic Church. Denial of an employment relationship constitutes a common defense when an employer seeks to avoid vicarious liability for the negligent or intentional acts of an employee under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The term “respondeat superior,” which literally means “let the employer answer” allows a court to impute the liability of an employee to an employer for acts committed within the scope of employment under certain circumstances. The court sided with the accusers who presented evidence that Serrano was paid a stipend by the church and had a desk located on church premises.
The judge also cited evidence that indicated the church had received numerous warning signs of Serrano’s conduct but failed to intervene. A priest testified that he observed Serrano kiss an eight-year-old boy on the mouth while embracing him inappropriately, but he neglected to report the incident. Two other priests knew for years that Serrano had boys (including the plaintiffs) sleep at his home. These priests even indicate they had visited Serrano’s home on many occasions when the boys were on sleepovers. A secretary also testified that she witnessed boys sitting on Serrano’s lap while completing homework. Despite a rule that staff could not be alone with children, the secretary indicated she observed Serrano frequently disregard this rule. The judge also observed that the parish kept no records regarding Serrano or his employment history despite his complete access to the church and involvement in a range of child-related programs.
The Brooklyn Settlement Continues a String of Recent Clergy Abuse Scandals
The Brooklyn settlement comes in the wake of recent scandals involving sex abuse allegations against priest and others affiliated with the Catholic Church. A grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report approximately one month before the Brooklyn settlement that accused over 300 clergy members of sexually abusing over a thousand victims spanning a period of decades. In recent weeks, the Attorney General of New York also announced an investigation into sexual abuse cases involving dioceses throughout the state.
The Brooklyn settlement now brings the total for payouts to sex abuse victims by the Catholic Church to over $3 billion. The scandal has prompted 19 dioceses and religious orders to seek bankruptcy protection. The scope of the sex abuse scandal was evidenced by a study conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice over a decade ago that found that sexual misconduct by priests occurred in three out of ever five religious communities and almost all dioceses.
A recent New York Times article reports that failures of leadership at the highest levels of the church have spurred skepticism regarding the prospect of self-policing sexual abusers amongst the church’s clergy and staff. Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the American bishops conference, has attempted to lead the way, but his efforts have been compromised by allegations of his own lack of action in the face of past allegations. Cardinal DiNardo has come under recent criticism for permitting a priest alleged to have committed abuse to serve in a parish in DiNardo’s archdiocese in Galveston-Houston.
According to the report, DiNardo ignored allegations directly communicated to him by a young female that she had been abused by a priest when she was 16. The subject of the allegations had served as vicar for Hispanics and continued in the ministry until August 2018 despite disclosure of details of the abuse to Cardinal DiNaro in 2011. The offending priest was only removed after his arrest on four counts of indecency with a child involving another victim. This poor record of dealing with sexual abuse allegations illustrates the difficulty the bishops face in gaining the trust of parishioners and the public based on a history of disregarding allegations and protecting offending priests. The lack of institutional trust prompted the drafting of a petition signed by 6,100 church educators, lay leaders, and theologians requesting that all American bishops tender their resignation to the pope.
Pursuing Legal Claims for Compensation for Clergy Abuse
Survivors of child sexual abuse perpetrated by a priest or staff member of the Catholic Church or any church might be eligible for substantial financial compensation for therapy, pain, rehabilitation, emotional suffering, lost earnings, and other applicable damages. A range of legal theories of negligence provides a means for survivors to pursue a civil lawsuit against churches for acts of sexual abuse committed by clergy and staff, including both employees and volunteers. For example, a church or religious organization can be liable for negligently hiring and/or maintaining the status of priests and other clergy members that it knows or should know committed acts of sexual abuse.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a member of the clergy or another representative of a church, an experienced clergy abuse attorney can guide you through the process. Although a lawsuit will not erase the harm you have suffered, the financial recovery can provide the financial resources to promote your physical and psychological recovery. Our attorneys at Parker Waichman LLP recognize the devastating impact of sexual abuse, and we strive to make our clients more comfortable discussing these sensitive issues. If you have been the victim of sexual abuse by a trusted member of your church, call Parker Waichman LLP at 1-800-YOURLAWYER (1-800-968-7529).
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