Vermont Clergy Sex Abuse Lawsuit

Vermont has been an epicenter of clergy sex abuse, most notably with Roman Catholic Church.  The Church has made great progress since the days of ignore and coverup but does not heal the scars.

Clergy sex abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church began earnest in the early 2000s, following similar revelations in other parts of the United States. Survivors of abuse, many of whom had carried their burdens in silence for years, were inspired to heroically speak out. The Church was accused not only of harboring abusive clergy but also of systematically covering up their misconduct.

Vermont Sex Abuse Lawsuits: Chapter 1

Victims pursued justice through the legal system, filing lawsuits against the diocese for negligence and failure to protect its congregants. In response, the Vermont Catholic Diocese implemented a compensation program for victims, similar to those set up by other dioceses around the country. However, many survivors felt that this was inadequate and continued their quest for justice through the courts.

In 2008, a landmark verdict in Chittenden Superior Court awarded one plaintiff $8.7 million, the largest judgment in a clergy abuse case in Vermont history at that time. This case, which accused the Diocese of failing to protect the plaintiff from a predatory priest, set a precedent for future lawsuits. It signaled to survivors that the juries would hold the Church accountable for its actions.

But the path to justice was not smooth. Many clergy sex abuse lawsuits were bogged down by an unfair statute of limitations, with the Church successfully defeating otherwise viable clergy abuse suits because the statute of limitations to bring a personal injury claim had long passed.

Vermont Legislature Fixed the Statute of Limitations

The Vermont stepped up and pushed past the pressure to keep the existing statute of limitations in clergy abuse lawsuits.

In 2019, Vermont passed a law eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. This was a major victory for survivors, allowing them to file lawsuits against their abusers and institutions that protected them, regardless of how much time had passed.

The Vermont Statute 12 V.S.A. § 522 pertains to the statute of limitations for actions based on childhood sexual or physical abuse. Here is a summary of its key provisions:

  1. A civil action seeking damages for injury resulting from childhood sexual or physical abuse can be initiated at any time after the act that caused the injury. The victim is not required to identify the specific act from a series of abusive incidents.
  2. When a complaint alleging childhood abuse is filed, it must be immediately sealed by the court clerk. The seal remains until the defendant is served with the complaint or until the court rules on a motion to dismiss. If the complaint is dismissed, it and related documents remain sealed. Any hearings regarding the motion to dismiss occur privately (in camera).
  3. The section defines “childhood sexual abuse” as any act committed by the defendant against a complainant under 18 years old, which would have violated laws prohibiting certain sexual offenses when the act was committed. “Childhood physical abuse” refers to any act, except an attempt, committed by the defendant against a complainant under 18 years old that would have constituted aggravated assault under the applicable statute at the time.
  4. The section applies retroactively to childhood sexual abuse occurring before July 1, 2019, regardless of any statute of limitations that may have been in effect at the time. In cases barred by a statute of limitations as of June 30, 2019, an entity responsible for employing, supervising, or having responsibility for the alleged abuser can be held liable for damages only if gross negligence is proven.
  5. Similarly, the section applies retroactively to childhood physical abuse occurring before July 1, 2021, disregarding any previous statute of limitations. For cases barred by a statute of limitations as of June 30, 2021, an entity responsible for employing, supervising, or having responsibility for the alleged abuser can be held liable for damages only if gross negligence is established.

These provisions provide extended opportunities for victims of childhood sexual or physical abuse to pursue legal action and seek compensation for the injuries they have suffered.

The Church’s Response

Following these scandals, the Catholic Church in Vermont, to its credit, has taken steps to address its past failures. The Diocese has issued public apologies, cooperated with investigations, and implemented programs to prevent future abuses. These measures include stricter screening for potential clergy members, mandatory training on recognizing and reporting abuse, and establishing a zero-tolerance policy towards any form of sexual misconduct. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington took a significant step by publicly disclosing the names of 40 priests who have been accused of sexually abusing children in Vermont since 1950. The release of these names came as a result of an independent citizen panel appointed by the Bishop. The purpose behind this action was to provide a measure of healing to the victims affected by the decades-long history of child sexual abuse within the Vermont Catholic Church.

The Diocese has also taken measures to support survivors, most notably paying reasonable settlement amounts to victims.  Beyond the compensation payouts, fund, they have established counseling programs and spiritual guidance services. Is it enough?  It is not enough. But it is a start.

Vermont Sex Abuse Settlement and Verdicts

  • $35,000,000 (Vermont 2014): A.I., a 22-year-old woman, claimed to have undergone extensive psychiatric treatments due to emotional distress caused by multiple sexual assaults perpetrated by S.I., an adult male. These alleged attacks reportedly occurred when A.I. was between three to eight years old. The plaintiff’s case against the defendant alleged that his actions included lewd or lascivious conduct, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and battery, and outrageous conduct committed either intentionally or with reckless indifference to the likelihood of causing emotional distress. The jury concluded that the plaintiff had convincingly demonstrated that the defendant had committed at least one act of sexual abuse against her.
  • $3,592,500 Verdict (Vermont 2008): An 11-year-old reported emotional distress following sexual molestation by a nonparty reverend at the church where the plaintiff served as an altar boy. The boy argued that the defendant church had not adequately trained or overseen its staff, had negligently permitted sexual molestation to occur within its premises, and was held accountable under the principle of respondeat superior.
  • $7,800,000 Verdict (Vermont 2008): The plaintiff, a man, accused a nonparty priest, associated with the defendant (Catholic Diocese), of sexually molesting him over several years during his early childhood. The plaintiff maintained that the defendant negligently failed to prevent its nonparty priest from coercing the minor plaintiff into participating in sexual acts that were neither instigated nor encouraged by the plaintiff, and that the defendant’s negligence directly led to his horrific pain and suffering for many year.
  • $170,000 Settlement (Vermont 2003): A male plaintiff claimed emotional distress following sexual abuse by a male co-defendant cleric, affiliated with the defendant diocese, when he was 13 years old. The plaintiff argued that the defendant had neglected its duty of providing adequate supervision to safeguard minor children under its care, had failed to prevent the sexual abuse of its minor parishioners, was previously aware of the cleric’s sexual interactions with young boys, and neglected to warn the parents about the cleric’s prior offenses.

How to Calculate a Settlement Amount for a Vermont Sex Abuse Lawsuit

Estimating damages in clergy sexual abuse lawsuits is hard. Really hard. Because the damages on a human level should be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  But we have to look past that and look at how clergy abuse lawsuits are practically evaluated for settlement.   Here are the key factors:

  • Type and Severity of Injury: The extent of physical and psychological harm inflicted upon the victim is a critical element. This involves costs associated with medical treatments, counseling, and therapy. The magnitude of the injury, its impact on the individual’s life, and the likelihood of recovery are taken into account.
  • Pain and Suffering: This includes compensation for physical pain and emotional distress that the victim has endured as a result of the abuse. Emotional distress can manifest in many forms, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health issues.
  • Loss of Enjoyment of Life: If the victim’s ability to enjoy the basic pleasures of life – which is exists in every sex abuse claim – this can also be a compensable element.
  • Lost Wages and Earning Capacity: If the victim could not work because of trauma or if the abuse negatively impacted their career prospects or ability to earn a living, compensation may be sought for lost wages and diminished earning capacity.
  • Punitive Damages: In cases where the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious or malicious, punitive damages may be awarded. This is money paid by the defendant as punishment and is meant to deter such behavior in the future.

In the context of clergy sex abuse, an additional key factor is the role of the church or religious institution. Juries get infuriated with the coverup.  If it can be proven that the institution was aware of the abuse or failed to take appropriate action, this will increase the jury’s payout or settlement amount.

Contact Us About Vermont Clergy Sex Abuse Lawsuits

If you were the victim of clergy sexual abuse and want to file a sex abuse lawsuit in Vermont, contact us today at 800-553-8082.

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