Girls abused by clergy members, and others, are focus of new team

Woman’s suit against Lutheran youth pastor is first in an effort to get more to step forward.


Attorneys Patrick Noaker, center, holding a portrait of the Rev. John Huchthausen, and Marci Hamilton, left, and Leander James.
Attorneys Patrick Noaker, center, holding a portrait of the Rev. John Huchthausen, and Marci Hamilton, left, and Leander James.

A national team of lawyers has joined forces to focus on a group of children who are underrepresented in clergy abuse cases — namely, girls.

The group announced its first legal action Monday, a suit by a Minnesota woman who charges that she was sexually abused for several years in the 1970s by a former youth minister at Zion Lutheran Church in Hopkins.

Although 1 in 4 girls reports being a victim of child sex abuse in national studies, just a small fraction of them take advantage of laws that permit victims to seek legal remedy in decades-old cases, Patrick Noaker, a Minneapolis attorney who is part of the team, said at a news conference.

The relatively small number of women stepping forward is true not just for clergy sex abuse, said fellow team member Marci Hamilton. In general, girls are reluctant to report abuse by coaches, teachers, family members and family friends, Hamilton said. Yet all can be sued through the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which allows older abuse cases to have their day in court.

Similar laws are on the books in Hawaii, Georgia, Massachusetts and Connecticut, she said.

Fifteen other states considered passing similar laws last year, she said, and many are likely to do so again next year.

“Survivors see who is coming forward and are mobilized by who is coming forward,” said Hamilton, a law professor at Cardoza School of Law in New York and a national authority on clergy abuse litigation.

“We have an epidemic of child sex abuse,” she said. “I hope that women across the country will find their voices, so that the public will learn who are the hidden predators.”

The goal of the legal team is to make sure that women are aware that they can take their perpetrators to court — even if those perpetrators were not priests or ministers and even if it was decades past, Noaker said.

“The [Child Victims Act] was passed for everyone sexually abused in Minnesota, not just altar boys,” said Noaker.

Monday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of a 52-year-old woman who says she was abused by the Rev. John Huchthausen, Zion Lutheran’s youth minister, beginning in 1974 when she was 12 years old. The girl was a member of the church.

He is now deceased.

The sexual abuse happened at and around the church, on youth retreats, and in other settings, the lawsuit charges. It says the church had knowledge of Huchthausen’s behavior, “but failed to act on the knowledge.”

Zion Lutheran Church declined to comment on the charges, filed in Hennepin County District Court.

The team handling the case includes Noaker, Hamilton, and Idaho-based attorneys Leander James and his law partner, Craig Vernon. Noaker has been representing child abuse and clergy abuse cases across the country since 2002. So has James, who has represented victims of the Diocese of Montana and the Jesuit Order in Oregon, among others.

The three attorneys will file the claims, lead the discovery of evidence and represent victims at trial, said Noaker.

Hamilton, a legal scholar on church-state issues, is a widely recognized national appellate lawyer. A child protection advocate, she has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court as well as consulted with state legislatures on the most effective child-protection laws.

Hamilton will handle legal challenges to the cases and appeals, Noaker said.

“It’s almost like we’re creating a larger firm,” said Noaker. “We almost have to. Whether it be a [Catholic] diocese or Lutherans or the Boy Scouts of America, they will engage a large number of lawyers to fight at every turn. We have to match that. That’s what we are doing here.”

Beyond priests and ministers, athletic coaches are a likely priority target of the group.

“Elite athletes tend to be most at risk,” said Hamilton. “They spend more time with their coaches, who have access to scholarships … and they spend a lot of time away from their families.”

The legal team is likely to take legal action on such a case early next year, she said.

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Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds

Religious belief appears to have negative influence on children’s altruism and judgments of others’ actions even as parents see them as ‘more empathetic’

The moment of truth


Children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households, according to a new study.

Academics from seven universities across the world studied Christian, Muslim and non-religious children to test the relationship between religion and morality.

They found that religious belief is a negative influence on children’s altruism.

“Overall, our findings … contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others,” said the authors of The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism Across the World, published this week in Current Biology.

“More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness – in fact, it will do just the opposite.”

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

The study also found that “religiosity affects children’s punitive tendencies”. Children from religious households “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions”, it said.

Muslim children judged “interpersonal harm as more mean” than children from Christian families, with non-religious children the least judgmental. Muslim children demanded harsher punishment than those from Christian or non-religious homes.

At the same time, the report said that religious parents were more likely than others to consider their children to be “more empathetic and more sensitive to the plight of others”.

The report pointed out that 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious. “While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and pro-social behaviour, the relation between religion and morality is a contentious one,” it said.

The report was “a welcome antidote to the presumption that religion is a prerequisite of morality”, said Keith Porteus Wood of the UK National Secular Society.

“It would be interesting to see further research in this area, but we hope this goes some way to undoing the idea that religious ethics are innately superior to the secular outlook. We suspect that people of all faiths and none share similar ethical principles in their day to day lives, albeit may express them differently depending on their worldview.”

According to the respected Pew Research Center, which examines attitudes toward and practices of faith, most people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. In the US, 53% of adults think that faith in God is necessary to morality, a figure which rose to seven of 10 adults in the Middle East and three-quarters of adults in six African countries surveyed by Pew.

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