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  • Sexual Harassment Claims Within the Catholic Church

    News related to allegations of sexual misconduct in the Catholic Church throughout the past few years has often focused on actual sexual abuse allegations against Clergy members.  However, there have also been a number of sexual harassment claims as well.  Last week, Larry Probst, a former worker at the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocesan Archives sued the diocese in U.S District Court, claiming he was sexually harassed at work, and subsequently dismissed after complaining about it repeatedly.  The lawsuit alleges sexual harassment, retaliation and sex discrimination. Probst seeks back pay and other damages under the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    More than two dozen cases have been filed against this particular diocese within the past year. While most allege sexual abuse by clergy, Probst’s case presents a clear example that sexual harassment claims are an additional concern for the church. The suit alleges that Probst was subjected to sexually offensive language, sexual advances and pornography on the computers at work.

    Probst must establish that he was subject to unwelcome sexual harassment, and that the harassment was based on sex, and that the harassment was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment and create a discriminatorily abusive working environment”, and that there is a basis for holding the employer liable.  The employee has the burden of showing that the employer was aware of the conduct, failed to act promptly, and failed to respond adequately with reasonable remedial action.

    Probst’s lawsuit alleges two priests, one of whom Probst assisted, talked about another male employee in sexually suggestive ways in Probst’s presence, and that there were a number of sexually explicit e-mails. Additionally, the lawsuit claims that a recently hired employee had also made sexual advances toward Probst. Probst alleges that this constituted unwanted and unwelcome sexual harassment from the two priests and other employee for nearly a year.

    Probst alleges reporting the incidents to one of the priests to no avail, and subsequently complaining about the incidents a number of times to a diocesan spokeswoman, the CFO, and the diocesan chancellor.  Probst alleges that the chancellor suggested that Probst could lose his job if he filed an internal complaint. The issue was ultimately forwarded to the human resources director. Subsequently, Probst claims to have been ostracized by coworkers and was dismissed on June 30.  He was told the position was being eliminated due to lack of funding.

    Probst will now try to have his case determined on the merits, which could present a huge potential liability for the diocese. Costs for sexual harassment claims like this can be staggering, both for the employer and plaintiff. A California court recently affirmed an $861,000 verdict in a sexual harassment suit; a figure not including the employer’s own legal expenses for their sexual harassment lawyers in Orange County.  This illustrates the need for competent sexual harassment lawyers in Orange County and throughout the state.

    If an employee sues and prevails in California, the employee may recover damages for past and future medical and psychiatric expenses, past and future wage loss, emotional distress, and punitive damages.  The plaintiff can recover attorney’s fees as an element of damages, and these are often larger than the actual damage award to the employee, giving sexual harassment lawyers in Orange County and elsewhere in California an incentive to help ensure redress for victims of harassment.

    This is clearly a serious matter for the church to consider. This particular case illustrates the need for a quick response with remedial measures taken to combat any alleged sexual harassment in the workplace, even if considered minor or ultimately untrue.  A good sexual harassment lawyer in Orange County understands that these allegations require the church and any good employer to have a system in place to quickly deal with these concerns.