For some survivors of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, going public with what happened to them is part of the healing process. But if your employer or the organization involved refuses to disclose the name of the person who abused you, do you have the right to publicly name your harasser yourself?
In this blog post, I will discuss a New York Times article about confidentiality in the context of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. I will discuss whether you have a right to publicly name your harasser, and whether a reasonable employer response can include publicity about your situation. I will also discuss how non-disclosure agreements and settlement agreements can affect your right to go public about what happened to you.
In the year since Pennsylvania released a grand jury report naming over 300 predator priests within the state’s Catholic Churches, the pressure has been on local diocese to come forward. Victims advocate groups including the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have been pressuring local bishops to release the names of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. They have had mixed success.
In January, 2019, Texas bishops named nearly 300 priests credibly accused of abuse. A month later, Catholic leaders in New Jersey released an additional 200 names. The archbishop of Hartford, Connecticut added another 48 names to the list around the same time. In April, in the midst of a New York State attorney general’s investigation, the Archdiocese of New York published a list of 120 accused clergy members.
But there have been other subdivisions within the Catholic Church that have refused. The Rockville Center diocese in Long Island, New York, is among them. One of the largest dioceses in the country with 1.5 million Catholics, the organization has refused to join the movement toward transparency in responding to the sex abuse and sexual harassment crisis within the church. It claims doing so would be “premature” while the investigation is ongoing, and that doing so could do additional harm to the victims of sexual harassment and abuse within the church.
But in many cases, it is those victims themselves who are demanding that the church publicly name their harassers. The New York Times quotes Donald H. Nohs, a religious expert and a survivor of sexual assault by a priest at the age of 13, who says:
“You’ve got to recognize the root cause and weed it out. . . . You’re not going to stop it if there’s not full disclosure.”
With some parts of the religious organization trying to dodge the bullet, the question becomes whether sexual assault and sexual harassment survivors have the right to publicly name their harassers. Public disclosure of a sexual harasser in the workplace can be part of an employer’s reasonable response to claims of abuse. However, often companies and organizations resist victims’ request to release the names, worried about the effect that may have on their reputation and public image. Do victims need to wait for the employer to make a public response, or can they go to the press directly?
This conversation has come up before in the context of private, secular employers like The Weinstein Co., Fox News, and even then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump. Generally speaking, the victims of sexual harassment have a right to publicly speak about what happened to them, and to publicly name their harasser. They do not have to wait for the employing organization to step forward.
However, when they do so, survivors should be prepared to back up their claims. Ideally, public statements about a person’s sexual harassment or abuse should come along with or after the filing of a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in federal court. Otherwise, the person speaking out could end up facing a lawsuit of their own, claiming libel or slander and saying that she or he made everything up. By pairing the public statement with a formal complaint, sexual harassment survivors can be sure they have a process to prove what they are saying is true outside of the “court of public opinion.”
But sometimes, contracts with private employers can accidentally give up an employee’s right to go public with harassment or abuse. Broadly worded non-disparagement agreements, mandatory arbitration agreements, confidential settlements of claims, and especially non-disclosure agreements can cut off a person’s right to speak freely about what happened to them, and who did it.
That’s why it is so important for the victims of sexual harassment and abuse to receive the help and advise of experienced employment discrimination attorneys before they go public. Public disclosure of sexual harassment and abuse can be key to raising awareness and finding others who share your story. But if you aren’t careful, you could accidentally violate a contract you may not even realize you signed. Before you publicly name your harasser, be sure to have a sexual harassment attorney review all your paperwork, to make sure there’s nothing stopping you from speaking out and telling your story.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys know when and how to help you publicly name your harasser after an incident of sexual harassment or assault. We know what to look for and can help you develop a plan to go public while protecting your right to compensation for the harm done to you. We will meet with you to review your situation and your options, so you can complete the healing process. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.