Sexual Assault in Religious Institutions

Churches have been under fire over the years for their permissive behavior and inaction toward sexual assault committed by members of their clergy. In the past and even today, clergy members have unsupervised access to many children due to their community involvement and position of trust. Some individuals abuse this level of trust and sexually abuse children. It’s taken years for victims to come forward but in recent years there has been a movement to hold predators and the church responsible for the atrocities children suffered at the hands of trusted religious authority.  

A violation of trust. 

Within the religious community clergy members are highly respected and admired. Parents trust their children with religious leaders anticipating they will act in the best interest of the children due to their high moral standards. Religious leaders actually have what is called a fiduciary obligation to the children and adults they interact with. This fiduciary obligation means that religious leaders have to act honestly and in good faith and must act in the best interest of those they serve. Unfortunately, this trust and obligation have often been violated by religious leaders. When a religious figure violates their fiduciary obligation which is the case when they sexually assault children there is a serious legal price to pay.  

Swales v. Glendinning 

Swales v. Glendinning is an unfortunate case of a family devastated after a priest sexually assaulted their children. The family had 5 children, 4 of which fell victim to the priest’s atrocious crimes. The boys aged ten, eight, and six at the time took a liking to a priest they met at summer camp. After summer camp the priest stayed in contact with the boys and their parents. Between 1969 and 1974 the priest introduced the boys to tobacco, alcohol, and various forms of improper sexual behavior. The boys would often stay overnight with the priest and during those nights he would engage in inappropriate sexual activity with the boys such as body oiling and painting, masturbation, genital fondling, and oral sex. Their younger sister was witness to some of the abuse and she was sexually assaulted by one of her brothers. The eldest sister eventually found out about the abuse and reported it to the police in 1974 and the priest was arrested and charged and found guilty of gross indecency.  

In 2004 the family brought a lawsuit against the priest for the damage and loss he had caused their family. The trial judge ruled that the priest had breached his fiduciary to both the parents and their children. The priest, the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of London In Ontario, the Roman Catholic Church, and the London District Catholic School Board were all held liable for the abuse and ordered to jointly pay for the damages awarded to the family. In total, the family was awarded $1,392,415. To read more about the case read our post:

It’s never too late for justice 

Sexual assault is a very traumatic experience. It can take years for victims to come forward about the abuse they suffered. Back when the church held a lot of power it was even harder for victims of sexual abuse to come forward. The abuse was often covered up. However, it’s important for survivors of sexual assault to know that it is never too late to come forward and receive justice. In the past individuals had 2 years to file a lawsuit once they realized they experienced a loss. On March 9, 2016, the Ontario Limitations Act was changed to remove any limitation period for civil claims based on sexual assault. This means that regardless of how long it has been since you were sexually assaulted you can commence a lawsuit against the person. The following is a case where a man filed a lawsuit in 2014 after he was sexually assaulted by a priest in 1963. 

McCabe v. Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation for the Diocese of Toronto, in Canada  

In 2019 a man sued the Roman Catholic church for the abuse he experienced at the hands of a priest when he was just 11 years old. The boy was being trained as an altar boy and in 1963 when the boy was on a trip with a priest and had to share a bed with him. That night the priest performed oral sex on the boy and fondled him sexually. The assault led to family difficulties and the boy turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. In 2014 the man initiated a lawsuit against the priest but he had died and therefore could not be held accountable however he decided to sue the church. For years the church denied liability but on the first day of trial in 2019, they admitted liability. The jury awarded the man, $250,000 for general and aggravated damages, $280,000 for loss of income, and $15,000 in punitive damages. Since the priest is deceased the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation for the Diocese of Toronto, in Canada was responsible for paying the entirety of the award granted in the lawsuit. To read more about the case read our post: 

Holding institutions responsible. 

Religious institutions played and continue to play a large part in covering up the sexual assault that went on and continues to go on within churches and schools. As a result, it is very common that religious institutions are sued as a result of a sexual assault committed by their clergy members. Legally religious institutions can be held liable through vicarious liability. This is when a person or institution is held liable for the actions of their employees. Whether they played an active role in allowing the abuse or failed to take precautions to prevent the abuse they can be held vicariously liable. For instance, in the case of MacLeod v. Marchall et al., The Basilian Fathers of Toronto, the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, and the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie were all held vicariously liable for the sexual assault a boy faced at the hands of a priest they hired.  

MacLeod v. Marshall et al. 

A man was sexually assaulted over 50 times in the early 1970s by a priest when he was a student at St Charles college, a high school run by the Basilian Fathers of Toronto. In 2010 the man heard a radio show about sexual abuse and reflected on his own experience. In 2012 he commenced legal proceedings. The man sued not only the priest but also the church and school board. The Basilian Fathers of Toronto were aware that the priest had been abusing boys before they had even ordained him as a priest. Furthermore, the priest taught for about 36 years and he was repeatedly moved to different schools when complaints of sexual assault arose. In a separate criminal proceeding, the priest pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 17 minors. In 2018 the lawsuit went to trial and the church and school board were found vicariously liable for the sexual assault the man suffered as a boy. 

The jury awarded the man, $350,000 in general damages, $75,000 in aggravated damages, $56,400 in future treatment costs, $500,000 in punitive damages and $1,588,781 in future and past loss of income. The priest, the Basilian Fathers of Toronto, the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, and the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie had to jointly pay the $2,570,181 awarded to the man. Read more about this case here:

Swales v. Glendinning 

In the case of the family who’s 3 boys were sexually assaulted by a priest the church and school were found negligent and vicariously liable for the abuse and damage the boys experienced. The judge found them negligent as they were wilfully blind to the fact that the priest had children stay in his apartment overnight and that he entertained children in his room alone. They also made no effort to enquire about concerns that other children raised. Furthermore, they treated the topic of sex as taboo and had no education or counselling on sexual matters, and left inappropriate and unusual behaviour unchecked. The judge also found the church vicariously liable as his position as a priest allowed him to be alone with young boys allowing him to carry out his predation. His position also put him in a position of power over the children leaving the children vulnerable to the abuse of his power. 

As a result of these findings, the church was found partly responsible for the abuse the boys suffered and were ordered to jointly pay with the priest the award of $1,392,415 to the family. For more information on the case read our post:

If you have been sexually assaulted by a religious leader, contact our lawyers at Equilibrium Law. We can help you hold them and the institutions who permitted your abuse accountable for their actions. We offer a free initial consultation and can help you discover your legal options.  


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