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What do wrongful termination and sexual abuse by a priest have in common?

Monday, April 21, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

priest abuse wrongful terminationWe can’t think of a single thing. Except last week we were listening to mock jurors hearing a wrongful termination case and their comments sounded very familiar. It was odd. It wasn’t another employment case that was ringing the memory bell for us. It wasn’t even a contract case. Instead it was pretrial research on allegations of sexual abuse by a priest (who had been convicted and sentenced for the sexual abuse of children). The mock juror comments from these two cases were almost interchangeable. And it was all about fraudulent claims. 

Jurors in the earlier sex abuse research project were sure the Plaintiff was lying. They knew the priest was a pedophile. But there was no evidence of abuse of this particular Plaintiff. In that case, the mock jurors suspected the Plaintiff’s family member who had been abused and received a large financial settlement from the Church, had given the Plaintiff ideas for a windfall of his own. The jurors felt uncomfortable supporting the Church against someone alleging priest sexual abuse. The religious mock jurors felt especially ambivalent and were obviously still feeling very betrayed by the Church leaders. But, they could not support the Plaintiff. He just wasn’t credible.

In the same way, mock jurors in the recent wrongful termination project were sure the Plaintiff was lying. They knew very well that harassment and discrimination happen in the workplace. A number of them had had similar experiences to what the Plaintiff claimed had happened, and others, as managers, had been sensitized to the issues and educated about the laws protecting US workers. They wanted to see proof. Anything. They asked for email, memorandums, voicemail, texts, something–anything that would support the Plaintiff’s claims. There was nothing. Just the Plaintiff’s testimony with lots of “I feel”, “my opinion is”, and “it seemed to me” language that the jurors were not willing to accept without evidence to support it. They wanted to support the Plaintiff because they knew bad things really do happen in the workplace. But the Plaintiff simply wasn’t credible.

As we debriefed the jurors in both cases, here is the message both groups had for the attorneys and clients:

Bad things do happen. We know that. But cases like this, where there is obvious fraud and deceit by the Plaintiff, cheapen the actual legitimate cases of abuse and discrimination so that people don’t take them as seriously. We can’t allow that to happen. We support the Defense.

It’s an odd thing. Priest sexual abuse and wrongful termination. As different as cases can get. And yet, they elicited the same feelings of disgust, unease, and a desire to take a stand for what is right–even if it makes you a little uncomfortable.

Two very different cases. One identical message from the mock jurors. Very often this work warms your heart as you watch everyday people struggle to find what is right at the conclusion of all the evidence. They stood up for what they saw as right, even when it distressed them to do it. It felt like justice.

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