The recent allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic Church clergy and other faith communities have prompted a painful and ongoing reckoning. As more and more survivors of clergy abuse step forward to share their painful stories, many involving disturbing allegations of sexual abuse of children by clergy members, the need to hold abusers and those within the church who enabled them accountable will continue to grow. One way survivors can seek that accountability is by pursuing civil legal actions for damages in California courts.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, California, was identified on the website BishopAccountability.org as a location of parishes in which clergy members accused of sexual misconduct once worked with children. The Diocese of Orange encompasses the parishes in Orange County.
Clergy abuse survivors in California who think they want to seek accountability through a court process often have many questions about how to proceed. The caring, experienced clergy abuse lawyers at Winer, Burritt & Tillis, LLP, are here to help. Contact us today to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation.
Accountability for Clergy Abuse Through the Courts
Survivors of clergy abuse seek accountability in many ways. They participate in criminal prosecutions of their abusers. They organize and advocate in the public sphere. They work to change the church from within.
They also increasingly take civil legal action for damages and other forms of relief available through the courts. A lawsuit can serve as a powerful tool for holding individual clergy members and church institutions accountable by giving survivors the ability to investigate and shine a light on church practices that fostered clergy abuse.
In California, survivors of sexual abuse—including abuse perpetrated by the clergy—have the right to sue to recover damages and other relief from their abusers and anyone who facilitated the abuse. The window of time in which survivors can file those claims is fixed by California’s statute of limitations, and varies according to the survivor’s age when the abuse occurred. California lawmakers are seeking to widen that window in cases of childhood sexual abuse, and to give new life to some claims that expired under current law.
Civil Remedies for Clergy Abuse
There is no easy way to heal the wounds of clergy abuse. Survivors carry many scars that may never fully heal. Monetary damages from a civil lawsuit are not a cure-all for that pain and trauma, but they can help survivors obtain needed support.
Other remedies potentially available through a civil action can help to deter clergy abuse. Punitive damages, for example, seek to punish wrongdoing and to create a strong incentive for church institutions to prevent further harm from clergy abuse. Injunctive relief can force church leaders and institutions to take proactive measures to prevent clergy abuse in the future.
Legal actions for clergy abuse take different forms. Some cases involve claims by a single survivor. Others take the form of group litigation, in which multiple survivors who suffered similar abuse join together to speak with a single voice.
Whatever form the lawsuit takes, the outcome is never guaranteed. That said, recent lawsuits around the nation have shown that when survivors can prove their claims, they may recover substantial sums of money and achieve other results that help to prevent further clergy abuse.
Clergy Abuse Statute of Limitations For Adult Abuse in California (proposed new statute probably effective January 1, 2020)
Under California law, survivors of clergy sexual abuse have varying time limits for filing their claims in court. Generally speaking, the laws give survivors more time to file suit than they give to other civil plaintiffs. How much time they get depends on the survivor’s age when the abuse happened. If it happened when the plaintiff was older than 18, then survivors can file a claim until the later of:
- 10 years from the date of the last act, attempted act, or assault with the intent to commit an act, of sexual assault; or
- Three years from the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that an injury or illness resulted from an act, attempted act, or assault with the intent to commit an act, of sexual assault.
Time Limits for Clergy Abuse Claims (old statute)
If the abuse happened when the survivor was under 18, then the statute of limitations allows a claim is allowed until the later of:
- Eight years from the date the plaintiff turns 18; or
- Three years from the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after turning 18 was caused by the sexual abuse.
Still, the above timeframes for filing a claim alleging childhood clergy abuse apply only to claims against an alleged perpetrator. Under current California law, a claim against anyone who enabled or failed to prevent childhood sexual abuse—which is typically the claim made against a church leader or entity, like the Diocese of Orange—must be filed by the time the plaintiff reaches age 26, or it will expire.
New Clergy Abuse Statute For Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse (Effective January 1, 2020):
A Proposed Law Would Expand Some Time Limits and Revive Some Claims
Assembly Bill 218 is currently pending in the California legislature. It proposes to revise some time limits for filing a claim alleging clerical abuse of a child. If the bill becomes law, it could give new life to the claims of many survivors of childhood clergy abuse.
Under the proposed law, survivors would have until they turned 40 to file a claim against church entities for enabling or failing to prevent clergy abuse against a child. In addition, the proposed law would create a three-year look-back window to file claims alleging childhood clergy abuse that have otherwise expired under existing law. Finally, the proposed law would triple the damages on anyone who covered up childhood sexual abuse, including abuse by clergy.
Consult a California Clergy Abuse Attorney
Winer, Burritt & Tillis, LLP, believes all survivors of clergy abuse should have the chance to seek accountability in the manner they choose. Our team of compassionate, dedicated clergy abuse attorney can help answer questions about taking legal action in California courts to seek remedies for clergy abuse. Call us at (800) 652-6137 or visit us online to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation.