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Religious Institutions

South Carolina Sexual Abuse Lawyers Handling Claims Against Religious Institutions

Advocating for children and adults assaulted by clergy and religious leaders

People place their trust and confidence in the religious leaders and institutions who guide them. When a member of a religious order commits an act of sexual assault or abuse, it often seems even more heinous, because it destabilizes our moral foundations. At McGowan, Hood, & Felder LLC, we understand just how difficult it is dealing with the effects of childhood abuse and trauma.

We also understand that the loss of spiritual guidance, along with the loss of innocence, can lead to lifelong pain and suffering. Our South Carolina sexual assault lawyers are here to help guide you through the process of filing a claim for damages against a member of the clergy, or against a lay member of its staff. We want you to trust us, so we can help you plan for a better, brighter future.

The scope of religious sexual assaults

Sexual abuse in houses of worship involves parishioners of all ages, gender, and sexual preferences. It includes leaders of Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Islamic, and other faiths.

The fundamental essence of the problem is that religious leaders abuse their position of authority and the trust that the people in the congregation place in them. In many cases, the abuse is not just one isolated incident. Many children and young adults are sexually assaulted or abused multiple times over a period of weeks, months, or years. Some of the more common forms of childhood sexual abuse by religious leaders include:

  • Indecent exposure
  • Oral sex
  • Rape and attempted rape (sexual battery)
  • Sodomy
  • Threats to tell others about your sexual activities
  • Unwanted touching or kissing

Abuse spans different religions and faiths

The Catholic Church has received the most publicity and is subject to the most litigation for failing to protect children from sexual abuse. However, sexual abuse crosses religious faiths and organizations, including:

The Catholic Church

In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury reported on large-scale sexual abuse and “decades of criminal offenses against minors by Catholic priests.” Advocates for child abuse victims claim that the Pope, archbishops, and bishops are not protecting the children. Just recently, Pope Francis removed former cardinal and archbishop, Theodore E. McCarrick, from his Washington, DC position due to a “long and widely rumored history of misconduct against priests, seminarians, and several minors.”

Reports of Catholic clergy abuse in America have been rumored for decades but rose to prominence in the 1980s. Then, in 2002, the Boston Globe did an explosive investigation into sexual abuse by the Church. The story became the subject of a movie, Spotlight, which won an Academy Award, and the journalists’ work resulted in the convictions of five priests. The archdiocese was required to pay $95 million to more than 550 victims and their families.

The archdioceses for the Catholic Church in other cities across the United States have settled similar claims for multi-millions of dollars.

Protestant churches

While the Catholic Church gains most of the headlines, it is not the only religious institution facing sexual assault accusations. Claims of sexual abuse have been brought against Protestant churches as well. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle reported on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. By their data, more than 700 victims have been abused over the last 20 years, and “roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct.”

The Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical religious organization, like the Catholic Church, with dioceses located around the country. The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina is in Charleston. Bishops are responsible for the regional diocese, which means they are also responsible for the clergy they hire and retain. The Episcopal Church has also faced numerous lawsuits alleging clergy sexual misconduct within its ranks as well as with parishioners, coming to a head in 2018 at the church’s national convention. Some of these cases also involved the sexual abuse of children.

The Church of Latter-Day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is a Christian faith also called the Mormon Church. A growing number of sexual abuse survivors are coming forward with allegations the church failed to protect them and/or their children. Multiple families are suing, and have sued, the church for failing to protect children from a sexual predator. Many victims and their families allege that many bishops in the LDS church failed to act on reports of sexual abuse and, in fact, covered it up or protected the abuser. Members of the Mormon church, as with many faiths, are taught to follow what their leader says, and often a victim is gaslit into believing the sexual abuse was his or her own fault.

Seventh-day Adventist Church

The Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed in 1863 in the United States. It is a Protestant Church with a global following: it “operates the second largest Christian school system in the world with more than 7,800 universities and colleges in more than 100 countries.” In October 2020, the Miracle Meadows Adventist School – a boarding school in Salem, West Virginia which claimed to help troubled children – agreed to pay $52 million to former students who were physically and sexually abused by members of the staff.

Though this is the largest case, it is not the only sexual abuse case involving the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There have been hundreds of victims over the years, many of whom were attending Adventist schools or youth programs, or were living in residential treatment facilities.

Recently, three plaintiffs have just filed a lawsuit in California alleging childhood sexual abuse by their psychiatrist. In 2018, a claim was filed by a 14-year-old girl in Chile alleging rape by a Church Monitor.

The Church of Scientology

The Church of Scientology has been the focus of multiple lawsuits and documentaries over the years, leading to disagreements about whether it is a religion, a money-making scheme, or a cult. In 2019, Business Insider reported that the Church was facing multiple lawsuits, “each accusing the mysterious organization of a dizzying array of abuses, including human trafficking, forced labor, and child sexual assault and exploitation.” More recently, four women have sued the Church alleging that it covered up sexual assault allegations against Danny Masterson, the star of That 70s Show and The Ranch.

Other faiths and religions

Other religious organizations have also faced claims of sexual assault and abuse. In February 2020, USA TODAY reported on “whether the Jehovah's Witnesses repeatedly failed to report child sexual abuse allegations to authorities in what is believed to be the first wide-scale examination by a U.S. law enforcement agency.” Similar investigations and lawsuits are currently ongoing in England, as well.

Allegations have also been made against Yeshiva University High, a Jewish institution in New York, and Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, the late yogi who introduced Americans to Kundalini yoga. Successful lawsuits have been won against imams from The Islamic Center of Irving in Texas and the Institute for Islamic Education, in Illinois.

Recognizing signs of sexual assault and abuse of children

There is no crime more insidious than the abuse of a child. One of the worst aspects of these acts is that most children lack the ability to articulate what has happened to them – and those who are able may be reluctant to say anything out of fear, embarrassment, or threats.

If a priest, deacon, rabbi, imam, reverend, or other religious figure sexually abuses or molests your child, we need you to know this is not your or your child’s fault.

It is important to us that you know that children who are being abused typically behave differently than adults who have been assaulted, and the signs to watch out for will also be different. These signs include:

  • Acting out sexual scenarios on dolls or with other children
  • A lack of a desire to socialize with other children
  • Anxiety, irritability, and depression
  • Changes in hygiene (usually for older children)
  • Cuts, bruises, and other physical injuries around the pelvic area
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Emotional withdrawal around religious leaders or other adults
  • Incontinence, even in potty-trained children
  • Not wanting to attend church services, classes, or church functions

Parents should understand how difficult and courageous it is for a child to speak about sexual assault or abuse at church. If parents have any concerns or suspicions, they should arrange for the child to meet with a psychiatrist or psychologist as soon as possible. Children are not likely to understand the wrongs that have been done to them until much later in life.

Mandated reporters in South Carolina

South Carolina does require that certain people must report any knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse to the proper authorities. These people are called mandated reporters, and they include doctors, teachers, counselors, and others in positions of trust and authority. Members of the clergy are also mandated reporters, but there can be exceptions. For example, Catholic priests cannot break the seal of confession, or they will be excommunicated. In cases such as these, you will need an attorney who can argue effectively for liability of the church or individual priest.

The trauma of sexual abuse by religious leaders

Any sexual relationship or encounter between a member of the clergy and a child is illegal and likely the basis for a sexual assault case. Children under 16 generally cannot give legal consent to any sexual act. The harm caused by these egregious wrongs often last a lifetime. Many adult victims of childhood sexual abuse:

  • Are unable to find and hold steady employment
  • Develop alcohol and drug dependency problems
  • Have difficulty developing normal sexual or romantic relationships
  • Need a lifetime of psychological counseling and therapy
  • Withdraw from the church entirely

Depression and suicide are also quite common among victims of religious sexual assault.

Claims against religious institutions in South Carolina

While the starting point for civil justice is to hold the clergy member or members who committed the horrible wrong accountable, this person often is not able to pay damages even when a jury appoints a large financial award. Many members of the clergy take vows of poverty.

However, justice demands that the institutions that knew of sexual abuse – or failed to take reasonable steps to protect their congregants – should pay civil damages as well. For this reason, you may be able to make your claim against the church, synagogue, mosque, or other institution, as opposed to the individual abuser.

There are several important factors to discuss with your attorney before filing a claim against a church or other institution:

  • Time limits (statute of limitations).Many children aren’t aware they have rights until they become adults. In South Carolina, children who were abused must generally file their claims within two to three years after turning eighteen (18) OR before the age of twenty-seven (27) depending on the circumstances. To be sure of the statute of limitations, contact a South Carolina sexual abuse lawyer.
  • Employer responsibility.Many employers are liable for the acts of their employees – but only if the employee was acting in the scope of his or her employment. Churches and other religious institutions will normally claim that these assaults were not within the scope of their employment. The counter argument, however, is that many of these wrongs occurred on church property while the child believed the clergy member was performing religious duties. The employer or religious organizations can also be liable for failing to properly supervise or discipline an offending clergy member or employee.
  • Negligence. Since the problem of sexual abuse by clergy has become so well known, claims against the church generally include:
    • Failure to conduct background checks before hiring a new clergy member
    • Failure to supervise the activities of the clergy members, especially activities involving individual instruction and church work between a child and a clergy member
    • Knowing that a clergy member is committing or has committed acts of sexual abuse and not taking steps to address the abuse, such as excommunication, defrocking, or firing
  • Breach of contact.If a student was receiving private religious instruction for a fee, then the school or entity that provided the instruction could be held liable on the grounds they breached their contract with the student to protect  him or her from harm by the teachers or staff.

Helping South Carolina victims of sexual abuse by clergy find their voices

McGowan, Hood & Felder, LLC understands how hard it is to acknowledge that the people you trusted took advantage of that trust. We demand that everyone responsible for these unconscionable wrongs be required to pay the maximum damages the law allows. We work with professionals to understand the full dimensions these traumas have changed the way you think, feel, trust, and cope. To discuss your options, call our South Carolina sexual abuse attorneys at 803-327-7800 or fill out our contact form to schedule an appointment.

Handling a variety of Sexual Abuse and Assault cases

There are many different types of assault cases. No matter the specifics, our attorneys are prepared to help you. We handle cases involving: