Time reported the story of Catholic nun Sister Irene Morissette, a resident of Chateau Vestavia, an assisted-living facility near Birmingham, Ala. Sister Irene told a staffer that she was raped in her bed. What added insult to injury was her inability to sue the facility that failed to keep her safe.
Morissette told police that someone held her 5-ft. 2-in., 140-lb. frame to the bed by her shoulders. She recalled the “terrible experience of being penetrated,” according to a recorded police interview reviewed by TIME. “I was so scared,” she said. “She was afraid to call anyone,” an examiner wrote later, “because she was afraid that the assailant would be the one to come back to her room.”
“Police and medical records paint a disturbing scene. Police investigators found two semen stains in Morissette’s bed and blood on the “inside rear area” of her green-and-pink-flowered pajama bottoms, which had been shoved underneath the mattress. A sexual-assault examiner at a local hospital reported that Morissette had sustained multiple abrasions inside and outside her vaginal canal, wounds that could be consistent with rape. “The genital exam was very painful for the client,” the examiner’s report said.”
“After a criminal investigation by local police failed to produce enough evidence to identify a suspect in the alleged attack, Morissette’s family tried to file a civil suit against Chateau Vestavia, alleging everything from negligence to outrageous conduct. They felt there was plenty of evidence to back up those charges. The semen on the nun’s bedsheets was enough to suggest sexual contact, and Morissette, because of her dementia, could not legally consent to any sexual act. But none of it would see the light of day in a courtroom.”
When Morissette first came to Chateau Vestavia, she had signed the facility’s standard admissions contract. Buried in pages of terms and conditions was what is known as a pre-dispute binding arbitration agreement. By signing it, the elderly nun gave up her Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury and any right to bring a civil suit against Chateau Vestavia or its then parent company, Trinity Lifestyles Management, for any reason and at any time in the future.
More than a million other elderly Americans may have waived away their rights in the same way Morissette did. More than half the 2.5 million Americans in nursing homes or senior living centers are likely bound by them. Legal advocates who work on behalf of seniors estimate that as many as 90% of large nursing-home chains in the U.S. now include arbitration agreements in their admissions contracts.
With arbitration, there is no courthouse, no judge and no jury. There are no requirements to follow state or federal rules on procedure, and effectively no appeals process. Whatever the arbitrator decides is almost always final.
In June, the Trump Administration proposed a new rule that would allow nursing homes to require residents to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of admission to a facility: either sign it or find somewhere else to live. With the number of elderly Americans projected to double over the next 30 years, mandatory arbitration clauses in nursing homes will likely affect millions of people. Which means some may find themselves in the same private system of dispute resolution that Morissette and her family fell into.
“This is blatantly a sellout to the big CEOs and the Wall Street guys,” says Kenneth Connor, a self-described conservative and a South Carolina trial attorney.
As for Sister Irene’s case, Reed Bates, one of Chateau Vestavia’s lawyers, argued ridiculous theories to defend the failures of the nursing home. He argued that Sister Irene was lying and had not bee raped. Bates then argued that the traumatic vaginal abrasions were caused by Sister Irene’s masturbation. Bates then offered speculation that the semen stains on the nun’s bedsheets got there while being laundered or handled by staff. Ridiculous.
The arbitrator sided with the facility claiming Chateau Vestavia was not accountable. Neither the assisted-living facility nor Trinity Lifestyles Management would be required to compensate Sister Irene nor issue an apology. And with that, the case was closed.
As a final indignity, Morissette’s family was handed a bill for roughly $3,000 to cover the cost of renting the Marriott room where the arbitration had taken place.