On the same day Pope Francis abolished the Vatican’s secrecy policy with regard to sexual abuse allegations, Rome’s Holy See was hit with a proposed class action lawsuit filed on behalf of victims of childhood sexual abuse who’ve previously settled claims against the Catholic Diocese in New York.
At the heart of the 19-page complaint is the Vatican’s formerly longstanding policy of “secrecy and concealment” in responding to allegations and reports of child sexual abuse by clergy. Seven named plaintiffs, all victims of childhood sexual abuse, allege the Vatican’s mandatory secrecy policy, which imposed the threat of excommunication on bishops and dioceses worldwide for more than 150 years, has fostered centuries of pervasive and systemic sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
Given the Church’s apparent protection of perpetrators and the silencing of victims, the Vatican’s secrecy policy has created what the plaintiffs call “a foreseeable risk of clergy sexual abuse” stemming from the Holy See’s alleged failure to disclose the “known danger” of clerical sexual predators. From the lawsuit:
“The HOLY SEE breached its duty of care to PLAINTIFFS and the CLASS by instituting a policy of strict secrecy, with draconian consequences for its violation, preventing the Bishops from (i) warning the children and parents receiving the services of Catholic clergy and engaging in contacts with Catholic clergy of the foreseeable risk of child sexual abuse from such contacts; and (ii) reporting or disclosing clergy sexual abuse of children to third parties, parents or others in a position to act to protect children from clergy sexual abuse."
According to the lawsuit, centuries of child sexual abuse known to the Vatican resulted in the issuance of policies and standards meant to dictate how bishops were to respond to allegations of such. In 1866, the suit says, the Holy See handed down express instructions mandating “strict secrecy and perpetual silence” when it came to child sexual abuse allegations under threat of excommunication. These instructions were developed in further detail in documents issued by the Vatican in 1922, 1962, 2001 and 2010, the lawsuit says, noting that the subsequent revisions concerned mandatory bishop follow-up procedures; the solicitation of sex in confessional; homosexuality, sexual abuse of minors and bestiality; and, in 2001 and 2010, the requirement for bishops to report sexual misconduct to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
At all relevant times, the case alleges, the Vatican directed bishops to respond to allegations and reports of child sexual abuse by maintaining the strictest of secrecy under penalty of removal and excommunication from the Church. Bishops, according to the lawsuit, “had no discretion to deviate from this secrecy policy and were forbidden” by the Vatican from disclosing or reporting clerical sexual abuse. The plaintiffs argue the Catholic Church’s governing body “enabled and emboldened” clerical sexual predators within an environment and system in which “they could engage in child sexual abuse with impunity.”
Lastly, the lawsuit touches on the Archdiocese of New York’s 2016 launch of its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP), which recruited third-party administrators to investigate claims of child sexual abuse and make settlement offers to affected individuals. Alleging that the New York Archdiocese’s aim with its IRCP was to obtain from victims of clergy sexual abuse releases that prevented the individuals from bringing their claims in court, the plaintiffs charge that, given the purpose and intent of the settlement programs, child sexual abuse victims received “only a small fraction” of the damages to which they may have been entitled had their allegations been brought in a court of law. The plaintiffs argue in the proposed class action that while they may not be able to bring the Archdiocese of New York to court, the Vatican has no such protection.
“Upon information and belief,” the complaint reads, “the releases executed by each of the Plaintiff[s] and members of the class do not release the Defendant Holy See.”
The putative class proposed for certification is defined as:
“(i) victims-survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clergy within the State of New York in the territories of the Archdiocese of New York, Diocese of Brooklyn, Diocese of Rockville Centre, Diocese of Albany, Diocese of Rochester, Diocese of Syracuse, Diocese of Buffalo and Diocese of Ogdensburg, who (ii) entered into monetary settlements of claims in an IRCP or other victim compensation program, received monetary compensation, and executed releases of the paying Diocese."
The plaintiffs’ claims contained in the lawsuit are brought under New York’s Child Victim’s Act. The complaint can be read below.