Sometimes it doesn’t take a lawsuit to get real relief as a victim of sexual harassment and sex abuse. The multiple victims of Catholic composer David Haas demonstrated that sometimes a victim’s advocate can make a big impact even when legal issues may stand between the victims and the courthouse. As a result of their advocacy, Haas’s hymns have been banned from Catholic churches in 10 archdioceses nationwide.
In music, there is a big difference between a single voice singing a solo and a chorus of harmonious voices. While one singer can make an impact, a choir in full voice can shake the building. The same is true when advocating for social changes. One woman or man speaking about one incident may get some attention, but when dozens of women come together to tell the same story, people listen. The survivor advocacy group Into Account has assembled a chorus of 38 women, all of whom allege that they were sexually harassed or abused by religious composer David Haas. According to Susan Bruhl, one of the women represented by Into Account:
“David has this uncanny knack of finding girls who don’t have fathers at home, who may have come from an abusive background or were neglected.”
A New York Times article told the stories of six of those women (four anonymously). According to their stories, Haas approached several of these women early in their church music careers, sometimes as teenagers. They accuse Haas of:
One of his victims, now a cantor in a Catholic parish, says she suffered a panic attack after the incident when she had to sing one of Haas’s songs during a church Mass.
While the ladies’ stories are compelling there are a number of reasons they may have trouble raising sexual harassment claims in court. As the New York Times notes, no civil or criminal charges have been filed against Mr. Haas. That may have to do with how long ago the incidents occurred, interactions falling outside the formal employer-employee structure, and problems holding religious leaders accountable for workplace discrimination and harassment.
The earliest formal sexual harassment complaint against has dates back to 1987, when the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis received notice of “unwanted sexual advances toward a young adult woman.” Ms Bruhl’s complaints date back even earlier, to 1984.
In many states, the statute of limitations for complaints like these may only be a few short years. Here in New York, it used to be that child sex assault victims had to file their claims within 5 years of turning 18. However, more recently, the New York Child Victims Act has allowed young women and men time to mature and heal before heading to court. These complaints can now be filed anytime before the child victim turns 55 years old.
Another legal challenge for some of David Haas’s victims comes in defining their relationship. Under federal law, an organization like the Catholic Church only needs to respond to sexual harassment complaints involving employees. But David Haas was not formally employed by the Church. As a composer, his working relationship with parish cantors and music directors was more like an independent vendor. That difference could block federal complaints filed under Title VII. However, the New York State Human Rights Law is broader. Since 2018, the law has protected contractors, vendors, consultants, and anyone providing services in a business, not just its employees.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for those seeking a lawsuit against David Haas comes from his role within the religious organization of the Catholic Church. Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that teachers were “ministers” for the purposes of applying federal employment discrimination protections. It prevented the former teachers from suing their Catholic school employers based on the “ministerial exception” to Title VII and the First Amendment. While David Hass does not appear to be an ordained minister, under the court’s decision, the ministerial exception applies to anyone who has the responsibility of teaching religion and participating in religious activities. That could apply to a writer and performer of Catholic songs like Haas.
The victims of David Haas’s sexual harassment and assault aren’t letting legal obstacles stop them from holding him accountable. Described as a “rock star in the Catholic liturgical realm,” Haas, has long been able to make up his own rules. For example, after his ex-wife divorced him in 1995, she faced retaliation in the liturgical music world, even though she too had been a victim of his sexual assault as a teenager.
In spite of all this, the victims are still pressuring the Catholic Church for change. They emailed a letter to church leaders, publishers, and liturgists explaining what they faced. As a result, 10 archdioceses from across the country have banned their churches from using David Haas songs. Liturgical publishers OCP and GIA Publications have cut ties with him, and his music has been pulled from a Mennonite hymnal called “Voices Together.” In addition, his local archdiocese now prohibits him from performing at Masses and other events, and it has not renewed his letter of suitability, which would allow him to perform elsewhere within the Church.
These steps show that even when a lawsuit isn’t the right option, victims of sexual harassment and abuse can get their stories heard and sometimes even be compensated for what they have suffered. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have sexual harassment and sex abuse attorneys who know how to approach these claims from all sides: legal, regulatory, negotiation, and publication. We can help you consider the strength of your legal case in New York and federal courts, and what other options you may have to make your voice heard. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an attorney.