Tuesday, June 25, 2002

EEOC finds jump in same-sex harassment



By Cindy Schroeder, cschroeder@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — A father and son's same-sex harassment lawsuit against the Diocese of Covington applies an unusual but growing category of workplace harassment law against the church.

        Same-sex harassment claims are a growing percentage — perhaps as high as 14 percent — of all sexual harassment claims, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington.

        In a twist on the “hostile work environment” claim, former diocesan groundskeeper Mark DiMuzio and his father, John DiMuzio, 64, a diocesan maintenance director for 42 years, claim in the suit filed Friday in Kenton Circuit Court that they were exposed to a “sexually charged working environment.”

        Gerald Reinersman, chancellor of the Diocese of Covington, has denied the allegations raised in the DiMuzios' lawsuit.

        A sexually charged workplace is present “when there's a severe and pervasive environment that constitutes a condition of employment. You can't go into work without having to put up with (the behavior). In our case, it was inappropriate sexual behavior that was sanctioned by church authorities,” said Barbara Bonar, the Covington attorney who filed suit on behalf of the DiMuzios, who live in Burlington.

        Same-sex harassment claims have been upheld in Kentucky courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court, and at least one same-sex sexual harassment suit is proceeding against a Jesuit order in California.

        The local suit alleges that in addition to physical and sexual abuse of the son by two diocesan priests, the maintenance men, who mostly worked at the Catholic Center in Erlanger in the course of their employment, witnessed sexual behavior involving priests.

        Ms. Bonar said her clients were exposed to “severe and pervasive incidents of sexual abuse among other people” on a regular basis during their employment with the Diocese of Covington.

        “My clients had to live with it every day,” she said. “They had to respond to it every day.”

        Ms. Bonar added, as the suit states, that some of the same church authorities who were treating people “in a sexually abusing way” continued “to maintain authority” over her clients while they were employed by the Diocese of Covington.

        “My clients knew that all of this was being sanctioned and allowed. While the priests were at the Catholic Center to quote "rehabilitate them,' they were pretty much allowed to live their own lives.”

        Ms. Bonar described her clients as devout Catholics who agonized for years before coming forward with their allegations.

        “My clients are maintenance people,” Ms. Bonar said. “They were in the diocese a lot of years, saw a lot of things and were asked to keep their mouths shut. It was especially hard for them because they were devout Catholics who were taught never to say anything bad about a priest.”

        In the suit, the son, Mark DiMuzio, 44, of Burlington also claims that he was sexually abused by a now-deceased priest in the 1970s and in the 1980s by a Covington auxiliary bishop. That man resigned this month as bishop of Lexington after similar allegations made by Louisville and Lexington men.

        While rare, claims of male-on-male workplace sexual harassment have increased since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that federal workplace laws do not bar sexual harassment claims in cases involving members of the same sex, legal and employment experts say. A year later, Kentucky also recognized sexual harassment between two people of the same gender under its Civil Rights Act.

        Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not track cases involving same sex workplace harassment, the number of men alleging sexual harassment in the workplace has increased during the past decade, said David Grinberg, an EEOC spokesman.

        “In 1994, about 10 percent of all sexual harassment charges received by EEOC were filed by men,” Mr. Grinberg said. “That number increased to 14 percent by 2001. . . . Anecdotal evidence indicates that many of these are male-on-male” workplace harassment cases.

        The U.S. Supreme Court case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc., involved a Louisiana man who claimed that he was sexually assaulted by two male supervisors and a male co-worker while working on an offshore oil rig.

        “That case finally made the determination that same-sex sexual harassment is covered by Title VII in the Civil Rights Act,” said Brenda Thompson, a labor and employment attorney and a partner in the Graydon, Head & Ritchie law firm. She added such claims “need not be motivated by sexual desire” and that harassment can occur between two straight men.

        “In some ways, the courts are still trying to determine the guidelines on that,” Ms. Thompson said. “The Supreme Court determined that simple teasing or roughhousing is not sexual harassment. You really have to go above that standard.”

        Throughout the United States, the courts have defined a hostile work environment — which could include a sexually charged workplace — as “unwelcome conduct that's so severe or pervasive that basically it starts to make the work environment abusive,” said Jon Davidson, senior counsel for the Los Angeles-based Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that handles civil rights litigation mostly involving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people or those with HIV or AIDS who feel they are being discriminated against.

        “The courts have said that being uncomfortable is not enough,” Mr. Davidson said. “An employer really has to make the workplace degrading, make it difficult to work there.”

        Mr. Davidson said one example could be enough to prove a case of same-sex workplace sexual harassment if it was severe enough, such as a threat of rape. However, hostile work environment cases usually involve a pattern of behavior, he said.

        “Until the Supreme Court ruled in (the same sex workplace harassment case) four years ago, they were all over the board in terms of whether courts were even allowing a sexual harassment case (between two men),” Mr. Davidson said.

       



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