One step forward, one step back in the battle to stop child sexual assault in the church

On Behalf of | Aug 5, 2022 | Other Church & Religious Organizations

One step forward, one step back, that’s how it sometimes feels in the battle to stop child sexual assault in the church. Unfortunately, Horowitz Law has witnessed that steps forward are often taken by those OUTSIDE church hierarchies (victims, police, prosecutors, lawmakers, attorneys, whistleblowers). The steps backward are often taken by those INSIDE church hierarchies. Such was the case last week in New England. We read encouraging stories about a positive ruling by the top court in Massachusetts. We also read discouraging stories about an accused Maine priest being supposedly ‘cleared’ by his Catholic supervisors.

Backward Steps in the Battle to Stop Child Sexual Assault in the Church

In July 2021, the Portland, Maine Diocese put Fr. Robert C. Vaillancourt on leave when he was accused of sexually abusing a girl in the 1980s. In 2021, a second alleged victim came forward. Last month, Maine Bishop Robert Dailey, through spokespeople and lawyers, claimed the abuse reports against Fr. Vaillancourt were “unfounded,” and the priest was immediately put back on the job.

But let’s keep in mind a few facts that suggest that Dailey could be wrong.

Fr. Vaillancourt faces two accusers. The odds of a mistaken or false allegation go down dramatically when a second person makes another abuse report. The alleged victims are female. Statistics show that more often, it’s women (more than men) whose reports of sexual violence are disbelieved. One of the victims is represented by an attorney, which increases the chance of her credibility. The other did a credible interview with a local television station.

In the late 1980s, Fr. Vaillancourt was involved in Diocesan Youth Ministry. He was also in charge of youth ministry at St. Andre’s in Biddeford. It is common for child predators to gravitate towards jobs that put them around children. The same goes for priests that work as the diocesan director of the Office of Vocations and the youth ministry at different times. Of course, most men in these posts are not predators., but history, psychology, and common sense all tell us that many predators gravitate to these kinds of jobs because they provide access to kids.

In 2002, Fr. Vaillancourt led the Maine delegation to World Youth Day in Toronto. On that trip, 350 young people and their chaperones went to see the Pope. He may have been given this assignment, as opposed to seeking it out, but again, this is a troubling sign. It is common for men who are sexually attracted to youngsters to take them on out-of-town trips. Fr. Vaillancourt also worked as a chaplain at two Portland hospitals. We acknowledge that the vast majority of clerics who are chaplains are not abusers. But it’s also true that bishops often transferred proven and admitted, credibly-accused child molesting clerics from parish ministry to hospital ministry.

If other abuse reports surfaced later, a bishop could claim that he was unsure if the priest had molested and transferred the priest to a position with closer supervision. If parents were upset about abuse allegations, a bishop could say that they couldn’t substantiate the charges, but out of an abundance of caution, they took him out of his parish. People make mistakes, of course, and memories are not perfect. There have been false allegations of clergy sexual abuse, although very few. Most often, they are unintentional, caused by similarities in priests’ names, nicknames, or physical appearances. So, Fr. Vaillancourt could be innocent. He could also not be.

We at Horowitz Law would not be surprised if Catholic officials erred in the direction of saving a cleric instead of a child. We won’t be shocked if others come forward with knowledge or suspicions of wrongdoing by Fr. Vaillancourt.

Steps Moving Forward in the Battle to Stop Child Sexual Assault in the Church

The top judicial body in Massachusetts, AKA, the Superior Court, just ruled that a child sex abuse and cover-up case against a retired bishop can proceed. Lawyers for the Springfield, MA diocese argued that the case should be tossed because of a law called ‘charitable immunity.’ A lower court judge had ruled that charitable immunity “does not protect” the diocese from the lawsuit related to sexual assaults by Bishop Christopher Weldon and other priests “as these allegations do not involve conduct related to a charitable mission.”

This is actually the second legal victory for Weldon’s alleged victim. Earlier, a judge said no when lawyers for the diocese wanted to delay the case, saying the plaintiff “has a right to expeditious resolution of his case.”

We at Horowitz Law often point out that lawmakers across the US and worldwide are increasingly becoming more sensitive to the needs of abuse victims. They’re passing laws that give survivors of childhood trauma more time to gain strength and report those who have hurt them.

But judges are also becoming more sensitive to the needs of survivors. After all, judges are human too. They have read and seen the articles, news shows, documentaries, and testimonies before legislative panels that the rest of us have seen. It’s tough for anyone in any position to learn about this widespread, devastating, and ongoing pain to children and not be moved. And when there are gray areas in the law, judges are more often siding with survivors and their advocates whenever possible. This is just speculation, but we strongly suspect that five or ten and certainly 20 years ago, a judge might have ruled differently in this Massachusetts case.

All of us at Horowitz Law are optimistic about the future and even the present. We recognize that much work needs to be done to protect children, heal victims, and prevent cover-ups. But instead of standing totally on the sidelines or taking the side of predators and enablers, judges and other government officials are coming around to see our point of view and making it more possible and less risky for victims to seek remedies in court. Our society will only benefit from this trend.

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy.  If you need a lawyer because you were sexually abused by a member of a religious organization, contact us today at 855-485-1673 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.