Church Autonomy and the Catholic Church Sex Abuse Cases

The research project is funded by the SNF (Swiss National Science Foundation) for a period of 48 months. The project is being carried out by Prof. Dr. Adrian Loretan and Dr. Zalman Rothschild (Nonresident fellow).

1) Abstract:

This project asks how legal orders can and should balance the structural rights of religious institutions with the human rights of individuals as well as the applications of secular laws.  The project focuses on the doctrine of "church autonomy" in the United States, and especially on how this doctrine gets applied to clergy sex abuse, which represents arguably one of the most important religious freedom issues of our time. The project will interrogate the doctrine of “Church autonomy” in American constitutional law and in Church canon law and propose a workable balance between respecting religious institutional autonomy and protecting individual rights. 

2) Lay Summary:

1. Lead:  The church sex abuse scandal is one of the most important religious freedom issues of our time. This crisis is exacerbated by the lack of corporate liability for religious institutions under the doctrine of “Church autonomy”. This project focuses on this doctrine in the United States, where the most clergy sex abuse lawsuits have so far occurred. American constitutional jurisprudence has also robustly developed a Church autonomy doctrine, which in turn serves as a model for other countries.

2. Aims of the research project: In a series of articles, this project will interrogate the doctrine of “Church autonomy” in American constitutional law and will propose a workable balance between respecting religious institutional autonomy and protecting individual rights. Such a balance will be required if religious institutions are to be held accountable by the state, i.e., by an independent, external, authority.  This project will not only be descriptive and explanatory but also prescriptive. Constitutional and religious initiatives are needed to tackle the ascendent tension between religious freedom and secular law. This project will suggest future developments that will provide meaningful contributions to the shaping of constitutional and religious law in general and as they might apply in cases of clergy sex abuse in particular. The project will have implications for how legal orders can and should balance the structural rights of religious institutions with the human rights of individuals and applications of secular law in general. 

3. Context of the research project: Academic discourse has failed to appreciate the importance of “Church autonomy” and the role it plays in clergy sex abuse litigation. This project will serve as a corrective and fill this vacuum, which will provide broader insights into how institutional religious freedom should interact with individual human rights.

3) Key Words:

Church Autonomy, Religious Freedom, Clergy Sex Abuse, US Constitutional Law, Law and Religion, Canon Law