The Problem of False Claims of Clergy Sexual Abuse

Article excerpt

The Catholic Church has experienced an epidemic of sexual misconduct allegations and lawsuits in the United States. In some cases, evidence that the church knew of sexual misconduct and had effectively concealed them has created a dire social and legal predicament. Although U.S. Catholic bishops have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for its priests and ministers, the church still faces a long and costly road of litigation that any organization in which adults supervise children--especially religious institutions--would do well to learn from.

Such incidents of abuse claims may result not only in criminal charges, but in costly civil actions as well. As Jason Berry reports in his book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, the Catholic Church alone has paid out over $400 million in clergy sexual abuse settlements and this total is expected to reach at least $1 billion before the spate of claims tapers off.

Cases of sexual abuse against children are both tragic and inexcusable. But as with any situation in which there are numerous claims of sexual abuse against a single defendant, some of those claims will be false. With grave sensitivity, it is the risk manager's duty to evaluate claims in light of this fact.

The Problem of False Claims

In 1993, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then archbishop of Chicago, was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Cincinnati by a former seminarian who alleged he was the victim of sexual abuse by Bernardin and another priest when Bernardin was archbishop of Cincinnati. The plaintiff, who at the time of the suit was dying of AIDS, had apparently recovered a "memory" of the abuse while undergoing hypnosis performed by an unlicensed hypnotist. The lawsuit against Bernardin was widely publicized, but three months later, the plaintiff dropped the lawsuit and recanted his allegations against Bernardin.

In 2002, an accusation of abuse against Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles generated a huge media stir, if not an actual lawsuit. A woman alleged that Mahony sexually abused her in 1970 when she was a student at a Catholic high school in Fresno, California. She claimed she was knocked unconscious during a fight with other students and when she awoke her underwear was missing and Mahony was standing nearby. The Los Angeles Times reported that this woman said she was motivated to press forward with her charges thirty-two years later because the state was cutting her disability payments and she needed "a cash settlement from the Church." The woman admitted to having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she told the Los Angeles Times nearly everyone she had encountered in her life, including her parents, other family members, classmates and coworkers, had molested, abused or emotionally mistreated her. The Fresno Bee reported that the woman admitted she did not know if she was molested or even touched by Mahony. "All I said was that when I opened my eyes, some of my clothes were gone and he was the only one around. I was unconscious. I don't know if he molested me, but he could have," the woman told the paper. Mahony yeas later cleared.

Why False Claims Are Made

The reasons behind a false claim are varied. Some claims may be intentionally fabricated to obtain a monetary award or to gain revenge, but this is uncommon. More likely, a false claim could be the result of a psychological illness. For example, the false accuser could suffer from an erotomanic delusion in which the individual believes that he or she is in love with another (such as the alleged abuser). Or, a false claim could stem from a persecutory delusion in which a person feels conspired against, harassed or abused.

Personality disorders are one source of psychological illness that may cause a person to make a false accusation. Exhibited by late adolescence or early adulthood these disorders influence the way individuals perceive, interact and respond to their environment. …