As “men of God,” pastors carry a great deal of power and spiritual authority. Parishioners look up to them for spiritual guidance, advice, correction, and support. Pastors also assume a teaching, counseling, and mentoring role, with all the transference inherent in such relationships. In such roles, the pastor has the opportunity to heal and strengthen weakened boundaries. But some ministers take advantage of this vulnerability by initiating sexual relationships with parishioners who need their help. Abusive pastors are usually charming and charismatic. They are manipulative and create a climate of secrets and inner circles.

There’s widespread sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches, evangelical churches, and the so-called Mega Churches. Since 1998, nearly 400 youth pastors and top ministers have been convicted of sex abuse against their congregants. Superstar pastors like Andy Savage and Bill Hybels have been forced to resign over allegations of abuse. The New York Times also published an expose of rampant sexual abuse at evangelical churches. While some churches have apologized for the misconduct of their pastors, most of them are usually interested in protecting themselves against the interests of victims who seek justice.

Victims cannot rely on the church for help in these cases. If you believe you were sexually abused by your pastor, the attorneys at Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm can listen to your story, evaluate your case, and explain your options. We represent adults and children who have been sexually abused by religious leaders. Contact us today at 310-359-9451 to schedule a free consultation.

What is Sexual Abuse within the Pastoral Relationship

Sexual abuse occurs when a pastor engages in sexual contact or behavior with a congregant, student, employee, or counseling client in the ministerial relationship. This involves nonconsensual touching, penetrative sex, as well as groping. An act can be considered to be sexual abuse even if the victim initiated or consented to the encounter because the victim was not capable of giving meaningful consent. This can apply to victims below 18 years or those that suffer from infirmity, such as mental illness. Certain activities that do not involve touching can sometimes constitute sex abuse.

The penetrator of sexual abuse may make threats, use force, or take advantage of a person who is not able to give consent. Sexual abuse involving a person in the ministerial role can include:

  • Unwanted or coerced sexual touch or “accidental” touch of the penis, vagina, or anus
  • Tickling and playful aggression that’s uncomfortable
  • Forceful kissing
  • Sexual intercourse against a person’s will
  • Giving or getting unwanted oral sex
  • Forcible penetration of a person’s private parts or causing a person to penetrate him/herself using an object, against their will
  • Unwanted exposure to pornography
  • A pastor masturbating or touching his/her genitals in front of a parishioner
  • An inappropriate gift from the pastor (such as lingerie)
  • Suggestive comments or tales of his or her sexual exploits or experiences
  • Any other sexual act that would make a person feel extremely uncomfortable

The Consequences of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse by a pastor or church leader usually involves secrets and lies. It carries long-term consequences and may have the victim in constant fear of physical harm and punishment. Ministerial sexual abuse affects every aspect of a person’s life, including relationships, feelings, and spirituality.  Many victims feel like they’re losing everything, especially since the church is regarded as the primary place where people receive support, nourishment, and primary connections.

Common effects include feelings of guilt, anger, shame, and fear. Betrayal by someone you’ve trusted is traumatic and often shatters a person’s ability to trust and feel safe. Individuals who have been abused often blame themselves and feel devalued, dirty, and ashamed. They often experience anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleeplessness, and fatigue. Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes engage in self-harming behaviors, such as drug/alcohol abuse, cutting themselves, or making unsafe choices.

Many survivors are left with a full-blown loss of faith and have to live a lie and pretend that things are fine. They feel responsible and blame themselves for putting themselves in those situations, for not stopping the abuse, or for not being courageous enough to tell the truth. Survivors who live with troubled memories and intrusive flashbacks may have poor or abusive relationships. When a reckoning of the abuse starts to sink in, survivors may become bitter and deal with rage at the abuser, at the institution, and even God. There are also spiritual effects in the event that a victim loses trust in church leadership and the congregation. Seeking accountability and justice is a great part of the healing journey.

What Makes Congregants Vulnerable to Sexual Abuse?

No one is immune from sexual abuse by a pastor or church leader. The traits are not usually common, except that the person is vulnerable to abuse at the time. Particular situations add to a parishioner’s vulnerability, and the typical perpetrator uses uncanny tactics for zeroing in on certain members with those vulnerabilities. A person may be susceptible to abuse due to emotional upheaval, physical needs due to a disability, physical size, financial needs, or employment or training needs. A previous history abuse, either experienced or witnessed, may also make a person vulnerable to abuse as they may have learned to be passive, accept abuse and feel responsible for the harm done top him/her.

Misuse of power can be sexualized when a parishioner wants a mentoring or counseling session. This could happen in the case of an older pastor taking an interest in a younger person for the purpose of encouraging their social and spiritual development. Youth activities can slowly become a context of power and authority when youth pastors do not use their power and authority to protect the boundaries of the relationship.

For women, issues like divorce, abuse, marital conflict, career confusion, or age can make them susceptible to abuse when they seek help from their pastors. Just about any issues or life changes can bring a woman into private conversations with her pastor, and this can be exploited as a gateway to satisfy the pastor’s power needs. Trust is exploited as the pastor takes advantage of the needs of the congregant. The unequal power balance also hinders the possibility of meaningful consent, which is typically supported by equality, mutuality, and absence of fear.

Many pastoral abuse cases go unreported for several reasons. First, the woman may feel responsible, especially because society blames victims for attracting perpetrators or doing something to provoke it. This is further compounded by stereotypes that portray pastors as sitting ducks for sexual maneuvers of female congregants. Second, a woman may not be able to stop the abuse because she feels somehow validated by it. Pastors know how to make someone feel special and valued. This can be compelling at vulnerable times. Over time, the feelings grow, and the parishioner may be sworn to secrecy. The woman may fear spiritual retaliation or hurting her career, the pastor’s family, or the church’s reputation.

What to Do if You’ve Been Sexually Abused by a Religious Leader

There is a very low reporting rate for sexual abuse by religious leaders. Often, survivors fear retaliation from the pastor, are concerned the church and society won’t believe their allegations, or do not realize they were harmed until much later. If you’ve been sexually exploited by a pastor or church leader, you’re not to blame for what happened. You have options, but knowing what to do or what to expect can make things a little easier for you. Here what you should do:

  • Call 911 if you’re in immediate danger
  • Report through a medical center: Seek treatment if you’ve sustained injuries related to the abuse. You can request a sexual abuse forensic exam and tell a medical professional you want to report the abuse.
  • Report to law enforcement: call your local police department or visit their offices to report the crime. Many law enforcement agencies have specially trained officers who deal with abuse survivors.
  • Share your fear, anxiety, or confusion with someone you trust. This can be a friend, family member, therapist, or lawyer. It’s important that you talk about the incident as soon as possible to help your recount important details and also prevent the abuse of other individuals.
  • Pay attention to your feelings. Confiding in someone is also good for your mental and emotional health.
  • Find out if your church, conference, synod, etc. has a policy and procedure for reporting and dealing with complaints about ministerial misconduct.
  • If you want to make a complaint against a pastor, find out if he/she is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. You can also make a complaint to the church.
  • Find a sexual abuse lawyer who can help you file a civil lawsuit.

Whichever course of action you take, the lawyers at Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm have many years of experience working with abuse survivors, consulting, counseling, and seeing them through the tragedy of sexual exploitation. We’ll be sensitive to your needs, listen to you, thoughtfully explain your options, and have your best interest at heart.

Civil Justice for Victims of Pastor Sexual Abuse

The civil justice system allows victims of pastor sex abuse to seek financial compensation and find justice for the physical, emotional, mental, and economic damages caused by the abuse. However, many abuse survivors don’t know about their right to file a civil lawsuit, and for this reason, most of them end their search for justice at the conclusion of the criminal case.

Civil lawsuits are based on non-criminal statutes, meaning that they’re handles separately from a criminal proceeding. Victims can file civil charges even if the criminal charges were dropped or the perpetrator never faced criminal proceedings. The results of a criminal case can substantially help a victim in his/her civil case, but it’s still possible to win a civil case even if the perpetrator is not convicted through the criminal justice system.

A civil lawsuit is handled legally by the courts and commonly involved individuals, groups of people, and other entities. Victims of ministerial sexual abuse can file a civil and criminal case against the perpetrator. While criminal charges are filed through the police, civil charges are filed by the victim for the purpose of recovering financial compensation for damages caused by the assault. The scope of liability in a civil lawsuit can be expanded to including third parties. In the case of pastor abuse, third parties can include churches and other related religious institutions. Holding the individual perpetrator as well as these institutions liable for the abuse is a more effective strategy to recover damages.

Steps in a California Civil Lawsuit

Civil lawsuits go through specific steps or proceedings. Before anything else, you should consult with a sex abuse lawyer about your potential civil lawsuit. You need to be sure that you have a valid case just to ensure you do not waste your time and resources on a case that’s unlikely to be successful or even make it to trial. The experienced attorneys at Stop Sex Sexual Abuse Law Firm only handle civil lawsuits and will help you determine the strength of your case. Consultations are confidential, and having an open and honest consultation will help us understand your case and provide the most accurate prediction of the outcome.

Your civil lawsuit will follow four steps:

  1. Pleadings

This is the initial step of a civil lawsuit case. It involves each side filing paperwork in the right court to give their side of the story. The case begins with the plaintiff filing a complaint. The defendant (the person being alleged of abuse) will file an answer. You need to choose an appropriate location for your lawsuit. The court you choose must have subject matter jurisdiction over your case type, personal jurisdiction over the defendant, and must be located in an appropriate location.

A complaint is a formal document filed by the abuse victim (plaintiff) with the court. The document is then formally delivered to the defendant by the plaintiff. The complaint details the plaintiff’s description of the events, outlining the way in which the defendant harmed the plaintiff. It also established a legal basis for holding the defendant liable for his/her actions.

The answer, which is filed by the defendant, is a response to the plaintiff’s complaint and provides the defendant’s descriptions of the events, outlining any falsehoods or inaccuracies found in the complaint. The defendant can also file a counter-claim, which is an allegation against the plaintiff, and outlines how the plaintiff caused harm to the defendant. The plaintiff will file a response or counterclaim.

  1. Discovery

In this step, both parties begin to obtain information or evidence to help strengthen their case. The parties also exchange the information they’ve gathered and intend to use in court. Discovery begins after all proceedings have been filed and is basically the longest part of civil lawsuit proceedings. It ends shortly before the trial.

  1. Trial

After discovery has ended and the parties have not resolved the dispute out of court, the lawsuit will move to trial. At the start of the trial, both parties will submit a brief to the presiding judge. This document outlines their respective arguments and evidence that they will present during the trial. Trial begins with both parties presenting their opening statements and giving a brief or their arguments. Each party will then introduce its case, beginning with the plaintiff. After the defense presents its case, the plaintiff will have another opportunity to present additional evidence. Evidence used in the trial can include documents, exhibits, medical reports, or expert testimony. Each party will then have an opportunity to make a closing argument, and the jury/judge will deliberate for a period of time. After the judgment is made, either party can choose to challenge the judgment.

  1. Appeal

If a party does not agree with the results, they can appeal the decision, which gives them another opportunity to present their case. The appellate court will review the proceedings of the previous lawsuit to look for any errors in legality made during the trial. After the review, the appellate court can affirm the verdict made by the trial or find the judgment rendered was unjust or inadequate, in which case the court may reverse the verdict or order a new trial. The ruling by the appellate court is final and must be enforced.

At Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm, we do not skimp on what’s important. We explore all legal avenues on behalf of our clients and employ a leave-no-stone unturned to investigation and discovery. Because of our aggressiveness and tenaciousness, we have been able to obtain the maximum allowable compensation for our clients throughout the state of California. You can trust us to do the same for you.

Types of Compensation for Pastor Sexual Abuse

As already mentioned, sexual abuse can affect many aspects of your life. While some effects touch on your physical and mental health, others come in the form of tangible financial costs. Physical injury caused by sexual abuse may last for a few days or weeks, but the emotional and psychological effects may require therapy or sustained treatment to resolve. Victims may relive the memories of what occurred, which can cause painful emotional outbursts and the need for costly therapeutic counseling. And no price tag can be put on the pain and suffering endured. The good news is that you can be able to obtain financial compensation for damages caused by the abuse.

You may receive compensation for:

  • Psychological counseling
  • Medical expenses
  • Lost earning capacity
  • Lost wages
  • Relocation expenses
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress or trauma
  • Anxiety and insomnia
  • Scarring
  • Court and attorney fees

To ensure that recovery is an option, our attorneys can help obtain monetary payouts from the perpetrator or other responsible parties, such as the church. This alleviates the stress of paying for medical assistance, treatment, or therapy. We will help you collect the information you need to make a claim. To help improve your chances of winning your case, try to preserve all the evidence by taking photographs of injuries, keeping soiled clothing safe in a freezer bag, printing off internet logs, and keeping details of hospital visits. We’re relentless in our pursuit of justice and recovery for physical and financial damages. A lack of financial resources should not keep you from obtaining legal help after sexual abuse. Whether you’re an adult victim or the parents of a child who has been victimized, we stand ready to act as your advocate and fight for your rights.

Statute of Limitations for Filing a Pastor Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

The state of California has several statutes of limitations for civil claims involving sexual abuse. The time limit generally depends on whether the victim is a child or an adult. If you’re a victim who has been sexually abused by a pastor on or after your 18th birthday, you should file your civil lawsuit within 10 years from the date of the last act, attempted abuse, or assault with intent to commit the act of sexual abuse. OR within 3 years from the date that you discover that an injury or illness you’ve been having or had resulted from an act of sexual abuse. If you were assaulted before January 1, 2019, you only have 3 years from the date of the attack to bring your claim.

As of January 2020, children who have been sexually abused or adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse will have until their 40th birthday to file a civil lawsuit, or within 5 years of the discovery of the abuse. This new law is meant to help revive any claims that would have not been considered due to the statute of limitations. If the abuse was covered up, victims may be able to recover treble damages in their claim.

Delay to file your civil lawsuit within the time limits can damage or destroy your case. You miss the deadline by one day, you lose. There are no excuses or do-overs. You may lose your right to sue or collect any compensation. Delay may also damage your ability for success because your physical evidence can be lost, and your memories can fade with time. Prompt action means prompt justice. It also allows for the attacker and other negligent parties to be stopped right away and prevent the abuse of others.

Find Help for Pastor Sexual Abuse Near Me

When pastor sexual abuse incidents come to light, many churches try to handle them internally to “protect the victim and the family.” But the main aim is to protect the offender and the church. This method of self-prosecution usually demonizes the victim and ends up favoring the perpetrator.

At Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm, we recognize that many churches employ these tactics as a way of avoiding accountability. Our skilled and experienced California sexual abuse attorneys are dedicated to advocating for clients and bringing the perpetrators to justice. We understand the sensitivity and pain of coming forth with such claims, so we provide you with compassionate, yet aggressive representation. And if need be, we will protect you from publicity and any unwanted attention that can result from your case. We handle each case delicately and in a less intrusive way.

If you or a loved one has been sexually abused by a pastor or religious leader, contact a California pastor sexual abuse attorney at Stop Sexual Abuse Law Firm for a free, confidential consultation. Call us today at 310-359-9451 or complete our online contact form to secure our compassionate, knowledgeable, and aggressive representation.