The Problem of False Claims of Clergy Sexual Abuse

by David R. Price, Ph.D., and James J. McDonald, Jr.

The Problem of False Claims of Clergy Sexual Abuse

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 was 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. Borderline personality disorder, for example, is characterized by pervasive patterns of instability with interpersonal relationships, self-image and mood. These individuals often have dramatic shifts in their view of others, can exhibit borderline rage, and engage in punitive and vindictive acts in retaliation against an authority figure’s perceived rejection of them. Histrionic personality disorder, on the other hand, is characterized by excessive emotionality and attention-seeking, which can result in a wish to assume the role of a victim.

Autistic fantasy, a psychological defense mechanism, compels an individual to deal with emotional conflict or stress by excessive daydreaming as a substitute for human relationships. Such individuals may daydream about a sexual relationship or inappropriate sexual behavior and convince themselves that it has occurred.

Projective identification, another defense mechanism, may induce an individual to falsely attribute to others his or her own unacceptable feelings, impulses or thoughts. 

Misdirected Accusations 
Some of those who lodge false claims of abuse against authority figures such as priests, ministers, teachers or coaches have in fact been abused—sometimes on several occasions by different perpetrators—but not by the individual targeted in the claim. What accounts for the misdirected accusation?

One culprit could be displacement, a psychological defense mechanism in which an individual deals with an emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by transferring a feeling about one object onto another (usually less threatening) object. Just as an employee abused by her spouse might, via displacement, accuse a supervisor of abusing her because she cannot come to terms emotionally with the reality of spousal abuse, so too might a person abused by a parent displace his feelings of anger onto a priest, teacher or other authority figure who was present during that time when he suffered abuse.

In the book, Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, Carolyn Haggen reports that the best predictor of sexual abuse of a child by his or her parent is alcoholism, followed by a conservative religious belief. This may set the stage for an individual who was in regular contact with someone in the clergy and who has been abused within the family context, but accuses a member of the clergy of the abuse via displacement.

Factitious Disorder
The concept of factitious sexual harassment might also have some pertinence to false claims of clergy sexual abuse. A factitious disorder is characterized by physical or psychological symptoms that are intentionally produced in order to assume the sick role. The late Sara Feldman-Schorrig, M.D., who coined this term, observed that some who file sexual harassment claims do so as a result of a need to portray themselves as victims. 

Schorrig cites several reasons why someone would feel the need to assume victim status, including the need to process feelings of distress resulting from abuse from other sources, the eliciting of emotional support and the opportunity to release anger against an identifiable target. The individual may also gratify preexisting needs for revenge. Or the victim role can be a means of converting socially unacceptable disabilities into socially acceptable conditions as a way to elicit sympathy and concern from family, to obtain status or to obtain financial reward.

Schorrig concludes that the possible existence of a factitious disorder on the part of a claimant alleging sexual abuse “at the very least” has a bearing on the “credibility or lack thereof” of the claimant.

Recovered Memories
Other claimants of abuse may be troubled personalities who are especially vulnerable to suggestion by therapists, attorneys or laypersons. 

Some claims of clergy sexual abuse are brought years after the alleged abuse occurred. Such claims often rely on “recovered memories,” a controversial psychological technique that purports to uncover patients’ repressed memories of abuse and other emotional traumas. Plaintiffs may allege that memories of abuse were recently recovered so that they can surmount the statute of limitations problem that otherwise would result from bringing a claim many years after the alleged event. Many states provide that the limitations period for the filing of claims for childhood sexual abuse is tolled during the period in which the plaintiff has no memory of such abuse. This is also known as the “delayed discovery rule.”

Exposing False Claims 
Suggestions that a claim of sexual abuse might be false or fabricated are often met with protests against blaming the victim. If the goal is to see that justice is done, however, the veracity of each and every claim must be verified. Of course, where there is objective evidence that the alleged abuse occurred (for example, eyewitness accounts or an incriminating statement made by the accused), any attempt to discredit the claimant is inappropriate to say the least. But where no objective evidence exists to support the claim of abuse, a thorough and objective examination of the claimant’s psychological history and functioning is required to get at the truth.

The first step is to obtain as much background material on the claimant as possible. This includes all medical, psychological and psychiatric records (especially pediatric records), which may document past sexual abuse by other perpetrators (e.g., parents or relatives) as well as the presence of possible psychotic illness or personality disorders. Divorce records involving both the claimant and the claimant’s parents should be obtained, including child custody evaluations and affidavits given in custody disputes. Records of prior lawsuits and criminal cases should be reviewed, as well as school and employment records.

The second step is to have the claimant undergo a mental examination by a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist pursuant to Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or its state law counterparts. Such an examination may be obtained in most cases where a claimant seeks damages for emotional injuries. A skilled examiner armed with prior records relating to the claimant can often determine whether a claim of abuse and the damages allegedly suffered thereby are real or fabricated.

The third step is to mount a vigorous challenge to any expert testimony offered on the claimant’s behalf that appears scientifically suspect. To this end, Daubert v. Merrill-Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. established a standard for admissibility of scientific evidence. In 1999, Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael expanded that standard to cover the admissibility of nonscientific or technical evidence. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 was then modified to reflect the Supreme Court’s intent in Daubert.

These standards hold that any witness who would testify as an expert must be qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education, and may proffer an opinion only if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data; (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (3) the witness applies the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.

This means that the expert should have training in rendering a psychiatric diagnosis and appropriate clinical experience, follow standard clinical protocols and principles in reaching a differential diagnosis and rely upon the diagnostic criteria for mental disorders as identified in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (2000). Additionally, the expert should be qualified in the use of psychological testing and use tests that have been empirically validated and  properly administered and scored. Expert testimony that is of dubious validity may well be inadmissible under Rule 702.

While documented cases of clergy sexual abuse are tragic and deserving of compensation, all claims nonetheless require scrutiny. False, fabricated and exaggerated claims do occur. Even if such claims are ultimately defeated, though, the defense costs can be substantial and the damage to those falsely accused can be permanent. 

Risk managers or claims administrators faced with a claim of clergy sexual abuse should consider whether the claim might be false, and whether such could be proven in court. By applying techniques proven effective in the defense of other types of claims of sexual misconduct, false, fabricated or exaggerated claims of abuse may be exposed.

Reprinted from Risk Management Magazine.
Copyright Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. All rights reserved.