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Japan woman sues Catholic church for sexual assault by bishop over 40 years ago

Harumi Suzuki holds a press conference after filing a lawsuit with the Sendai District Court on Sept. 24, 2020 (Mainichi/Mie Omokawa)

SENDAI -- A woman filed a lawsuit against the Sendai Catholic Diocese and a bishop, among others, on Sept. 24, seeking a total of 51 million yen (approx. $484,000) in damages for sexual assault she suffered at the hands of the bishop at a church here over 40 years ago.

    The Sendai Catholic Diocese oversees all the Catholic churches in the northeastern prefecture of Miyagi, of which Sendai is the capital.

    Claims of sexual molestation by Catholic clergy have been raised in countries across the world, but an attorney for the plaintiff has said they do not know of any other similar lawsuits being brought against Catholic clergy in Japan.

    At a news conference after filing the lawsuit, the plaintiff, 67-year-old Harumi Suzuki, a resident of Sendai, told reporters she was sexually assaulted in 1977 at the age of 24 by a bishop in a room of a church in Miyagi Prefecture that she had been attending. For a Catholic like Suzuki, a bishop was a figure that could be characterized as "God's surrogate." At the time, she felt guilty, feeling that she herself had defiled the church, and became dependent on alcohol and other substances.

    She realized that she had been a victim when a psychiatrist told her in 2015 that she was "not at fault." The following year, she reported the incident to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan. A probe was conducted by a third-party committee, which reported that "there was a high possibility that the reported incident took place." However, the bishop told Suzuki that the incident had been consensual, causing her further emotional distress. Suzuki says she still suffers from profound post-traumatic stress disorder. More than 40 years have passed since the assault took place, but Suzuki said, "I filed the lawsuit in order to regain the dignity that I have lost, and to bring an end to such serious humanitarian crimes."

    Shiro Komatsu, the executive director of the Sendai Catholic Diocese, said, "We cannot comment on the case until we see the bill of complaint."

    (Japanese original by Mie Omokawa, Sendai Bureau)

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