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The Statute of Limitations Maze: The Labyrinthian Process of Catholic Sex Abuse Cases

by John Winer

After what seemed like a brief lull, various Dioceses throughout the United States are facing a steady stream of accusations from adults who, as children, were sexually abused by clergy in the Catholic Church. And, there seems to be a great deal of willingness on the part of elected officials to help streamline the process, something that did not exist in previous generations.

Throughout the country there seems to be a reawakening of these allegations as District Attorneys in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere have either brought new charges or released the names of priests and others accused of child sex abuse. Archdiocese of New York named 120 clergy who were “credibly accused” of child sex abuse and a law firm released another 300 names accused of abuse in New Jersey.

There is reason to believe the California government will change the civil statute of limitations standard currently in place. The change will allow adult survivors of sexual abuse while a minor to bring claims up to their 40th birthday. At the same time, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of adults will be changed from two years to 10 years.  This will allow California sexual abuse victims to have a far larger window to bring a civil case for monetary damages.

Even the Catholic Church has made serious attempts at drastic changes; Pope Francis issued a “groundbreaking” law that requires all Catholic priests and nuns globally to report any clergy sex abuse and cover-up by superiors to church authority. It also provides whistle blower protections for anyone who makes a report. The law makes the world’s 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters mandated reporters.

From the late 1990’s through the 2000’s there were numerous lawsuits filed against various dioceses throughout the country over sexual abuse allegations. Priests, nuns and other church leaders were accused of truly heinous crimes against defenseless children. These cases settled for billions of dollars, but more important they provided the victims and survivors of this sexual abuse to confront their accusers and air their grievances. While the process of holding the Catholic Church and its leaders accountable is important, it is also an arduous task for any lawyer or law firm to undertake. Discovery alone can be a monumental challenge when trying to uncover the truth behind an incident which occurred twenty or more years ago.

The culture of the Catholic Church, which goes back thousands of years, makes it extremely difficult to obtain information. Religious organizations in general try to avoid public controversy when dealing with a problem, but with so much history and so many years of alleged abuse, the Catholic Church has a long list of sins it would rather not make public.

In dealing with the Church, it’s hierarchical structure can be a nightmare to navigate. The idea of “mandatory reporters” should be simple, and it’s disturbing that the law should ever have to hold someone accountable for not reporting child sex abuse. But, in the Church where the position of Pope literally goes back to St. Peter and where religious hierarchy is a highly complicated structure, holding people responsible is extremely difficult. Civil litigation seems to have been the only way to hold Catholic officials responsible for their choices. And not just the pedophiles themselves, but the church leaders who either put violators into alleged treatment programs or transferred them to other parishes. The behavior of the predators and their protectors is equally as disgusting and much of it was only made public and dealt with through attorneys whose loyalty was with their clients and not an ancient religious institution.

There are 12 dioceses in California; San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno, Orange County, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Monterey, Stockton, San Bernardino and San Diego. Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, sent a letter to all of them requesting that church officials retain documents which could be relevant to allegations of clergy sex abuse as well as of mandatory reporting. Becerra even asked two dioceses in particular (San Francisco and San Jose) to turn over specific documentation.

Thankfully for those of us seeking justice for our clients the California Attorney General is actually helping to eliminate one of the major barriers to uncovering the truth – statute of limitations. Memory, both the memory of the victims and the memory of the law, becomes incredibly difficult to navigate when a 40-year-old man is trying to recount abuse he suffered when he was seven-years-old. It’s not that this type of trauma is ever forgotten, rather that finding proof for a judge and jury is a difficult thing. Statute of limitations rules have often allowed pedophile priests to skirt the law because their alleged crimes occurred years, if not decades, before their accusers came forward. What the Attorney General’s actions seem to acknowledge though is that how can the law or any individual expect a seven-year-old to have the wherewithal to confront his accuser in a specific period of time?

Predator priests, like many sexual predators in positions of authority such as Boy Scout Troop Leaders, find themselves protected by these statutes because it limits the period of time their victims have to call out their abuser. Most people go through long periods of personal anguish and shame before the thought of filing a lawsuit ever becomes an option. Changes to these rules will allow a far greater access to justice for men who lived in shame because they simply wanted to serve God and the Catholic Church.

After handling many sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church over the last 40 years, we have learned that the Church will take advantage of any law that it feels affords them protection. That includes the statute of limitations. The Church labels any effort to extend the statute of limitations as “anti-religious” completely ignoring the obvious fact that there is absolutely nothing “pro-religious” about clergy sexually abusing parishioners and then getting away with it because the nature of the abuse itself prevents victims from coming forward for many, many years.

John Winer is an attorney in California. He can be contacted at (510) 255-6638.

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