By John Elliott Leighton - LEIGHTON LAW, P.A.
Extensive news coverage of the Penn State and Syracuse sex abuse scandals has brought heightened awareness to an important and saddening issue – one that occurs far too often and has been going on for far too long without legal accountability. With the awareness of the well-publicized abuse cases plaguing the Catholic church, as well as cases in our own Floridian back yard, Institutions that should be safe havens for young people have been called into question for their role in condoning or failing to react to sexual abuse.
Awareness of this widespread problem dramatically increased when Catholic priests and members of other religious orders were publicly accused of sex crimes against minors, leading to multiple prosecutions and civil lawsuits against priests, dioceses and parishes. As at Penn State and Syracuse, the scandal involved not only the issue of abuse, but also the failure of others in authority to report it when they knew it was occurring. This constitutes not only conspiring to conceal but also abetting criminal misconduct.
Between 1950 and 2002, 10,667 individuals made allegations of child sexual abuse against 4,392 priests and deacons in the United States, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004.
Here in South Florida, one case that garnered significant media attention involved the owner of the Country Walk Babysitting Service. Owner Frank Fuster had previously served two years of probation for molesting a 9-year-old girl, and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in another case. This time, he was accused of ‘unspeakable acts’ with more than 50 minors in the Babysitting Service, including leading the children in Satanic rituals, taking mind-altering drugs, and sexual abuse. He was found guilty of 14 counts of abuse and sentenced to a minimum of 165 years in prison.
Lawsuits against the Vatican have been allowed to proceed in Oregon and Kentucky, although there is still a question of whether the Vatican’s immunity from lawsuits will prevail. In Kentucky, district and circuit court judges allowed the case to continue under an exception to foreign immunity since the allegations point to serious harm caused in the U.S. by foreign employees and officials.
We may ultimately see new legislation also arise from the Penn State case, which seems to involve abuse dating back more than a decade. It may open avenues for victims of this and other abuse cases to file criminal complaints or lawsuits long after the incident occurred. In Florida the statute of limitation for victims who were under the age of 16 at the time of the abuse has been eliminated and for those older there are extended statutory periods (See Fla. Stat 95.11).
Negligent premises security can also come into play in sexual abuse cases when the assault is committed by a stranger who should not be on the property or have access to a child. The nature and extent of the duty owed by a property owner depends on the nature of the premises, the foreseeable criminal activity on and/or near the premises, and the relationship of the parties.
Relevant case laws:
• A landowner breaches duty to use reasonable care by failing to make diligent searches or inspections at reasonable intervals for dangerous conditions that might be created by invitees or third parties. Boatwright v. Sunlight Foods, 592 So.2d 261 (Fla. 3d DCA 1992)
• The duty of care owed by a landowner to invitee with respect to protection from criminal acts is dependent upon foreseeability of such acts. Admiral’s Port Condominium Ass’n. v. Feldman, 426 So.2d 1054 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983)
The Civil Justice System as an Institutional Deterrent
All too often institutions are complicit in the abuse of children. By failing to take reasonable steps to provide a safe environment, screen and supervise employees, or turn the other way when allegations are made, these entities are just as guilty as the pedophiles and abusers. The only way to break this cycle is to create strong disincentives for complacency. That’s where civil claims can make a difference.
Does anyone believe the Boy Scouts of America or the Catholic church would change the way they conduct business had it not been for civil lawsuits?
Places of worship, daycare facilities, camps and schools are meant to be safe and nurturing places that parents can trust, and where they can leave their children without worry. Too often, however, we are seeing sexual abuse cases against individuals and institutions whose business and profits depend on the trust parents put in them. From clergy to camp counselors and from theme parks to universities, individuals, institutions and any facility that invites and hosts children need to be called into question and held accountable for their role in abuse against children. The only effective way to stop this abuse is through the deterrent effect – and economic consequences of – the civil justice system.
By John Elliott Leighton
LEIGHTON LAW, P.A.
1401 Brickell Ave., Suite 900
Miami, FL 33131
121 S. Orange Ave., Suite 1150
Orlando, FL 32801
South Florida Legal Guide 2012 Edition
Corporate and Institutional Liability For Sexual Assaults and Sexual Abuse
By John Elliott Leighton - LEIGHTON LAW, P.A.