We’ve all heard and read about the sexual abuse lawsuits that have been filed against Catholic Church Clergy over the years. A new one was filed this week in Lake County against the Gary Diocese.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Lake Superior Court says Richard Emerson, while a priest at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Munster, repeatedly molested a boy in the parish during 2003 and 2004 and forced him to watch a pornographic video. The suit was filed on behalf of the boy, now 15, referred to in the lawsuit as John Doe of Hobart.
The case against this particular Catholic Diocese unfortunately seems to fit along the lines of some others that have been reported where there was evidence of past abuse by the particular priest in question.
A 2004 letter from Melczek to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — said the bishop had warned Emerson about taking boys on vacations and letting them stay in his rectory.
The letter said that “on a number of occasions priests and laypeople have expressed their concern to me about Father Emerson.”
I have handled a number of sexual abuse cases over the years, and they are nothing short of excruciatingly painful. Dealing with the emotions that naturally go along with such an abuse of power by those who would prey upon innocent children or the elderly is, honestly, one of the hardest things about any case like this. After all, I’m a parent, too. I can relate to the victim’s family, and put myself in their shoes to some degree.
Indiana law allows for victims of sexual abuse in these types of situations to bring a claim against the molester or abuser. Also, depending upon the circumstances, the victim can sometimes bring a claim against the abuser’s employer, such as the Catholic Diocese in this case. However, there are certain requirements under Indiana law.
First, in order to hold the employer vicariously (jointly or equally) responsible, the abuse must have happened while the abuser was within the course and scope of his/her employment when the abuse occurred. Second, and equally important, the Indiana Court of Appeals has held that the abuser’s job requirements must include physically touching the victim for a legitimate reason.
For example, there are times when clergy touch parishoners for prayer or other legitimate reasons related to their job. Likewise, nurses or home health workers must physically touch their patients. There are two Indiana Court o Appeals case dealing with sexual misconduct that are most often cited. The first involves a nursing home patient being abused by a staff member (Stropes by Taylor v. Heritage House Children’s Ctr. of Shelbyville, Inc., 547 N.E.2d 244 (Ind. 1989). The second case involves kids who participated in little league baseball being sexually assaulted by a little league official, (Southport Little League v. Vaughan, 734 N.E.2d 261 (Ind.Ct.App. 2000).
In both of these cases, the Indiana Supreme Court and Appellate Courts held that there was a sufficient requirement of physical contact for the employer to be held responsible for the abuse of their employee. However, a recent Court of Appeals decision held that an employer could not be held responsible for the criminal sexual assault of a member of the community when the person’s job requirements did not require physical contact. In that case, a township trustee sexually assaulted a woman who came to his office for help. After the woman sued the county and township, the Court of Appeals held, that the trustee’s job did not require physical contact in such a manner that the employer could be held liable or responsible for the criminal acts of their employee.
The distinction seems arbitrary in some ways, but that is where the law seems to be at this point. My guess is that this particular case will be able to make the necessary connection between the priest’s job requirements and the assault so as to hold the local diocese vicariously liable. Let’s hope that it does, and that the case acts as a deterrent and wake-up call so that this kind of abuse does not happen in the future.