​Sexual Harassment in the Catholic Church: Are the Victims Protected?

American Flag and Church Steeple: Legal protections for sexual harassment in the Catholic Church

Controversy over sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the Catholic church has been swirling for years. Now a recent indictment by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury has taken the matter out of the religious world, and into the legal sphere. But the question remains, are the victims of sexual harassment in the Catholic church protected? Or does the fact that the employer is a religious organization exempt it from gender discrimination laws?

In this blog post, I will review reports and indictments connected to sexual harassment in the Catholic church. I will discuss whether federal civil rights laws against gender discrimination and sexual harassment apply to religious institutions. And I will explain what options the victims of sex abuse and misconduct within a church, temple, or other religious order have to protect their rights.

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report Reveals "Playbook" of Sexual Harassment in the Catholic Church

On August 15, 2018, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury issued a scathing report that shook the nation. The report named over 300 "predator priests" who had been credibly identified as sexually abusing over 1,000 child victims. These sexual assault incidents spanned over 60 years, dating back to 1947, and involved clergy in six dioceses: Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. The Grand Jury report said:

"We believe that the real number of children whose records were lost or who were afraid ever to come forward is in the thousands. . . . Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted."

Most of the incidents identified in the report were too old to prosecute. But the report did result in indictments against two priests, one in Erie and another in Greensburg, who are accused of sexual molestation of minors.

Sexual Harassment in the Catholic Church Involved Employees as Well

The story of sexual abuse in the Catholic church is often framed in the most disturbing terms: of older male priests raping and molesting young children, including altar boys and girls. However, the sexual harassment involved church employees as well. In July, 2018, the New York Times published the story of Robert Ciolek, a young man studying to be a priest in the 1980s. He was sexually harassed by his Bishop, Theodore McCarrick -- his superior within the Catholic church.

Ciolek, who was in his 20s at the time, felt unable to say no to his superior's sexual advances:

“I trusted him, I confided in him, I admired him. . . . I couldn’t imagine that he would have anything other than my best interests in mind.”

McCarrick was eventually named a Cardinal, one of the highest ranks within the Catholic Church, and an advisor to Pope Francis. But after Ciolek's allegations came to light, McCarrick resigned. The Pope has announced that the Council of Cardinals had reviewed his case and substantiated (found support for) the claims against him. The Pope ordered McCarrick to live a “life of prayer and penance” for what he had done.

Title VII and Sexual Harassment Inside Religious Institutions

Ciolek's case, like many of the sexual abuse incidents included in the Grand Jury report, is too old to result in legal action. But as more sexual harassment victims of the Catholic church come forward, the question becomes whether the church can be held responsible as an employer under Title VII.

Federal civil rights law requires employers to take reasonable steps to investigate and respond to allegations of sexual harassment by their employees, especially managers and others with supervisory authority. When an employee reports that a supervisor pressured him or her for sexual favors as a basis of employment or punished him or her for refusing those advances, the employer is legally required to step in and take reasonable steps to stop the sexual harassment, up to and including firing the abuser.

In 2017, the Catholic church employed over 37,000 clergy, religious, and lay (secular) leaders in the United States. When one of those employees comes forward claiming gender discrimination or sexual harassment in the Catholic church, will its status as a religious organization interfere with its employees right to be free from unwanted sexual advances?

In general, religious organizations are required to comply with Title VII and other employment laws. However, two exceptions limit the options available to the victims of discrimination and harassment in the Catholic church:

Religious Organization Exception

The Religious Organization Exception under Title VII allows religious organizations like the Catholic church to give preference to members of their own religion in hiring decisions. However, this exception does not excuse discrimination or harassment based on other protected traits like sex or gender. For example, a religious organization cannot refuse to hire women based on its religious beliefs around the role of women in ministry. Because of this limitation, it seems unlikely that the Catholic church could use the Religious Organization exception to excuse sexual harassment of seminarians and other employees within its ranks.

Ministerial Exception

The bigger hurdle for the victims of sexual harassment in the Catholic church comes from the Ministerial Exception. Courts have ruled that clergy members are not allowed to file claims under Title VII and other federal employment discrimination laws because doing so would put the government in charge of deciding who could or could not lead a religious organization. That, the courts say, interferes with the church's First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

However, the Ministerial Exception only applies to employees who are involved in religious functions within the church. While a priest may not be able to file a claim, the church secretary might. Also, some courts have chosen not to apply the exception when the case would not affect the church's First Amendment rights.

The Catholic church is not immune to laws protecting employees from sexual harassment and abuse. However, the Ministerial Exception and other limits placed on the courts' ability to regulate religion could make it harder for clergy to recover for sexual harassment in their religious work. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys know what those limits are, and how to work with employers to get religious employees the relief they need. We will meet with you to review your situation and your options, so you can be free of harassment at work. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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