Child abuse survivor succeeds in claim against Catholic Church
We are happy to report that one of our clients has recently succeeded in a compensation claim for injuries suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest for childhood sexual abuse.
Background – the abuse
Our client was sexually assaulted by his family priest Father Michael Smith from the approximate age of 15 to 17. This abuse took place at Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, Tonbridge, Kent where Smith was the parish priest.
Father Michael Smith was a constant presence in our client’s life from birth. He performed a number of religious ceremonies including his Baptism, First Confession, First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Our client also confessed to him on a number of occasions.
Our client and his family were an active member of the congregation and our client was made an altar server by Smith while still at primary school before he was employed to work at the church about 15 years old and this is when the sexual assaults commenced.
Our client’s mother discovered the abuse and she informed the police. During the police investigation, Smith committed suicide. The CPS held they had sufficient evidence to charge Smith for sexually abusing our client and a number of other children if he had still been alive.
The impact of the abuse
The abuse continues to have a substantial impact on our client’s life according to an independent psychiatrist that we instructed. He started to self-harm once the abuse started and he also suffered from flashbacks and nightmares. In the immediate aftermath of Smith’s suicide, he found it particularly difficult to focus on his studies and he became socially isolated.
Our psychiatrist noted that our client has an underlying lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, poor motivation, a lack of focus and a lack of enjoyment. The abuse impacted on his ability to concentrate on his studies and this affected his GCSE and A-Level grades. If he had not been abused, the psychiatrist would have expected our client to have gone on to university and had a professional career. Instead, our client spent a period of time unemployed and his current employment is substantially less than what he would have been expected to earn as a graduate.
Our involvement – pursing a compensation claim
As Smith had not been convicted of assaulting our client, we knew that we would have to prove that all of the acts of abuse had in fact taken place. We intended to infer that Smith’s suicide was an indication of guilt and that this inference supported our client’s case. Despite the inherent difficulties of the case, we agreed to act on the basis of a no win, no fee agreement.
After considering the best way to proceed with our client’s case, we decided to pursue Smith’s employer: the Catholic Church. It was clear to us that Smith had used his position as a priest to obtain access to our client before manipulating him and then sexually abusing him. Smith had also used his position of authority and trust in relation to our client to prevent him from reporting the abuse. As a result, we felt the church were responsible for the abuse as they had failed to supervise Smith even though he had daily interaction with young children.
Although you can report a crime at any time to the police, you generally have to bring a civil compensation claim within 3 years of the assault or by your 21st birthday, whichever is later. As our client was nearing his 21st birthday, we therefore issued court proceedings. Bearing in mind the private nature of this claim and how our client wanted to ensure his identity was kept confidential, we applied to the court to anonymise his identity. Our application was successful and our client was therefore known by three non-descript letters (such as “ABC”) and his address was noted as our Firm’s address for the entirety of his claim to ensure nobody could ever identify him.
The church denied they were responsible for the acts of Smith and they also alleged our client consented to the sexual acts and that they therefore could not be classed as assaults. We emphasised that not only was our client under the legal age of consent for sexual activities when the abuse started but that the imbalance of power and Smith’s manipulation continued until our client was 17 years old.
As the church were also demanding our client to prove the abuse took place we decided to apply to the court to help us obtain a copy of the files held by the police and CPS. These documents showed a number of other children had made allegations of abuse against Smith and we were able to use this information to support our client’s case.
Following this, we arranged a meeting with the church’s legal representatives and we were able to reach a substantial settlement for our client and payment of his legal costs. This was a significant result for our client as he felt he had obtained a sense of closure and justice that he had been denied by the criminal justice system. It has also assured him that the abuse was not his fault and that he had finally been believed.
Dino Nocivelli is a partner in the Abuse team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. If you feel you may have a claim or are enquiring on behalf of a loved one, contact Dino free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4887 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Abuse team will contact you. Find out more about the Abuse Team.