Understanding the Challenges When Suing a Church for Sexual Abuse in Florida

Florida religious institutions and leaders enjoy broad legal protections under both the state and U.S. Constitutions. And while there is nothing in law that expressly protects clergy, churches, temples, mosques, or religious schools from civil sexual abuse lawsuits, some have argued – with mixed success – that the First Amendment protects them from liability when the failures analyzed are decisions rooted in religious doctrine.suing church for sexual abuse in Florida

As a South Florida sexual abuse lawyer can explain, sexual assault and molestation are not protected under the umbrella of free religious practice or free speech. However, churches have argued that they cannot be held accountable by the government/courts for negligence in carrying out certain functions – such as hiring and retention – because those functions stem directly from church doctrine – and are therefore protected by the First Amendment.

That was the argument before the Florida Supreme Court in the case of Malicki v. Doe. At the time, the Florida Supreme Court rejected this argument from a church accused of protecting an alleged abuser – though the ruling was split and somewhat controversial in the legal community. Churches will still try to cite the First Amendment in their efforts to sidestep responsibility for failure to protect vulnerable congregants from predatory leaders and members. That makes it all the more important to hire a civil trial lawyer who knows what to expect and how to counter such assertions.

Challenges to Florida Sexual Assault Claims Against Churches

But even with a growing chorus of successful cases, one should not assume that suing a church for sexual abuse in Florida will be easy. Some of the most significant hurdles in church sexual abuse lawsuits are:

  • Statute of limitations. Florida has a 2-year statute of limitations for most all tort claims rooted in negligence, per F.S. 95.11. (It used to be 4 years, but the law recently changed to shorten that window.) That includes potential causes of action in a sex abuse case against an institution. That said, if the abuse was ongoing, the statute of limitations clock wouldn’t start until the last instance of abuse. However, there may be some exceptions, particularly if you suffered sexual molestation or abuse years ago, but you were a child. Intentional tort claims – filed directly against the abuser – in cases involving child sexual abuse can be filed at any point.
  • Comparative fault. This is less an issue when the victim is a child, but in cases involving adult or even older teen victims, church defendants may argue there was “consent” between the parties, and thus the accuser was comparatively at-fault for the relationship. They may even bring up the sexual history of the plaintiff. It holds less water when we outline the power imbalance between both parties, but it’s a potential obstacle nonetheless.
  • Lack of evidence. There are often few if any witnesses to what happened beyond the people involved. Even if it can be proven the abuse occurred, establishing that the church or its leaders were negligent can be difficult. It’s imperative that such claims only be handled by experienced civil sexual assault attorneys.

Holding Abusers – and Their Protectors – Accountable

As staunch advocates for sexual abuse survivors, we are committed to giving prospective clients all the information they need to decide if and how they want to go forward.

Far too many predators have cloaked disguised themselves as protectors and defenders of the faith. The Roman Catholic Church has come under a lot of fire for protecting sexual predators over the last 50 years, but it’s not just them.

An analysis published in 2023 in the journal Qualitative Criminology revealed that among three of the largest faith-based insurance companies insurance covering some 160,000 Protestant churches, they received 7,095 insurance claims of sexual abuse by clerical members, church employees, congregation members, and others from 1987 to 2007. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle reported more than 350 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers (including pastors and youth leaders) had been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 children and adults since 1999. A third-party investigation commissioned by the SBC after that report found that national and local church leaders suppressed reports of sexual abuse and protected those accused for more than two decades.

The SBC, the Roman Catholic church, and others have vowed to reverse course on this issue – yet reports of sexual abuse in churches continue. Recently, three church sexual abuse lawsuits were filed against two churches – one in Gainesville and another in Orlando – who allegedly covered up allegations of sexual assault of minors by a member/church summer camp volunteer. The congregant has since been convicted of several counts of sexual assault related to those allegations. But despite the churches knowing of the allegations, they continued to allow him access to children – within the church and in summer camp.

Lawsuits against churches for sexual abuse are separate from the criminal cases. They are third-party liability lawsuits, filed because the church breached a duty of care to the abuse survivor. What is alleged is the church had a duty to protect the victim, the victim was not protected (and often the harm was reasonably foreseeable, particularly when the abuser has a prior history), and the victim suffered harm as a result.

If you have been abused by someone in the church clergy, a church member, a church volunteer, at a church summer camp, a religious school, or other related circumstances, don’t write off the possibility of a sexual abuse lawsuit until you’ve had a chance to talk to an attorney.

Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.

Additional Resources:

Southern Baptist Leaders Mishandled Sex Abuse Crisis, Report Alleges, May 22, 2024, By Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias, The New York Times

More Blog Entries:

Florida Sexual Assault Civil Lawsuits Have Short Statute of Limitations Window, April 16, 2024, Florida Church Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Attorney

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