Two unique legal theories used to build clergy sexual abuse cases

Racketeering and public nuisance can be used to help hold a clergy member liable for sexual abuse.

A series of new lawsuits against clergy accused of sexual abuse are moving forward in California. These lawsuits are based on the legal theories of racketeering and nuisance to force bishops to provide lists of offenders and hold offenders accountable for their wrongdoing.

Racketeering laws and allegations of clergy abuse

The government commonly uses charges of racketeering to bring down mafia organizations. The legal argument in this case is that the Catholic church has acted as a criminal organization and thus violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Congress enacted RICO to combat organized crime throughout the country. A successful RICO claim allows the prosecution to hold leaders of criminal organizations liable for crimes they either ordered others to commit, assisted in committing or for furthering the ongoing criminal organization.

The strategy includes allegations the church first subjected children to abuse and then furthered their criminal actions by actively working to cover up the crimes in order to further its "commercial operations."

This legal strategy has found success in the past. A victim of sexual abuse by a clergy member successfully built a case around this legal theory in 1993. This recent case is unique, because it also uses a strategy otherwise reserved for cases involving attempts to hold senior officers in the military responsible for wrongdoing referred to as the "command responsibility" doctrine.

Public nuisance and the need to release the names of credibly accused clergy members

The second attempt aims to use nuisance laws to establish the church has created a hazard to the public. A case out of Minnesota was able to proceed with a similar claim, noting much less harmful situations have warranted public nuisance claims in the past - cases like harboring a worrisome dog. The victim used this legal theory to demand the release of the names of priests who were abusing children.

In the more recent case, the claim could also result in the release of the names of the accused as well as help encourage negotiation of a settlement for the victims.

The legal strategy often depends on state laws

Although it is yet unknown whether these cases will find success with these claims, victims can benefit from keeping apprised of how courts respond to these claims. If others find success, they may as well.

It is also important to note that each state has its own laws. RICO statutes are one example. Although they are often similar to the federal RICO law, they have their own nuances. This piece touches on two recent cases brought in California as well as previous cases in both New Jersey and Minnesota. State laws are available to help victims in any state build a claim, but it is important to navigate these laws wisely. As such, a victim is wise to seek the counsel of an attorney experienced in this niche area of the law to better ensure his or her case is built based on applicable legal theories.