Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Prevention: Changing Laws Relating to the Church


Recent news reports have highlighted issues within the Catholic Church – namely, indiscretions by clergy against young parishioners. Statistics released by the Catholic Church of Poland – spanning greater than 10,000 individual parishes – indicate as many as 625 children were reportedly sexually abused by approximately 382 priests over the past 28 years, with 58 percent of victims being male. These staggering statistics join the seemingly unrelenting avalanche of reports worldwide related to child sexual abuse within the church context – which has predominantly involved the Catholic Church. However, no one denomination or faith group is immune from this blight.

U.S. laws have responded to this problem in several ways, from expanding mandatory reporting laws to an increase in the statute of limitation so that victims may seek relief many years down the road. Further, laws crafted to set aside priest-penitent privilege, which historically has worked akin to attorney-client privilege, will allow for disclosure of confidential information received from a parishioner during confession or other exchanges. And states increasingly recognize the horrors of child sex abuse and the lifelong toll it exerts on its victims – working to ensure children receive protection to the greatest extent possible.

Reporting laws

Every state has some semblance of mandatory reporting laws applicable to someone with knowledge of possible child maltreatment. However, in many states, not everyone is required to report possible abuse – and it was not until relatively recently that states began applying these laws to the clergy. Earlier this year, the Commonwealth of Virginia joined the coalition to specifically call out clergy in its statutory list of those required by law to report known abuse to authorities. With this, Virginia joins a growing list of states that either specifically mention clergy in the list of mandatory reporters, or require anyone with knowledge of child abuse to report the information immediately. And, when it comes to priest-penitent privilege, nearly all states construe this doctrine narrowly to ensure it is not used to prevent the exposure of child sex abuse within a church setting. In fact, a handful of states expressly prohibit the invocation of privilege in the context of a child abuse reporting.

Criminal law & Procedure

Statutes of limitations dictate a time limit by which an alleged victim or prosecutor must initiate legal proceedings against a defendant or accused person/entity. If the time limit has passed, the claim is considered “time-barred” and forever waived. This harsh reality hits strongest against child victims of sex abuse as, by the time they are ready and able to make their claim, are realizing that the time limit has passed. Fortunately, lawmakers are recognizing this legal loophole (benefitting abusers) and examining ways to restart the clock to allow adult victims the opportunity to come forward.

By contrast, lawmakers in Utah have proposed a so-called “church apology bill,” which would permit a church to issue an apology to an alleged victim without admitting guilt. Technically speaking, this means that a church could offer its condolences to an alleged victim, and those statements could not later be used against the church in a criminal or civil proceeding as a way of showing that the abuse actually occurred.


 Aside from criminal culpability, sex abuse victims may also seek financial compensation for the physical, mental and emotional harm experienced as a result of the abuse. However, the notion of enduring a years-long legal battle can be overwhelmingly deterring for victims, which is why states are beginning to advance the cause against the church – and against child sex abuse overall.

Most recently, West Virginia launched its civil lawsuit against the Catholic Church, interestingly filing for relief under the Consumer Protection Act. While not officially confirmed, legal scholars believe that the state opted to sue under consumer laws – alleging false advertising of the church a safe place for children – in order to gain access under relevant discovery laws to the church’s vast accumulation of documents and abuse reports allegedly kept secret. According to experts at the Study of Church Management at Villanova University opined that “[t]he consumer fraud is just to get the foot in the door….And then you can open up all kinds of avenues, once you’ve established that. The diocese is unwilling to provide it, this is the only way to do it.”