Allegations of sexual abuse, particularly abuse against children, have shaken the Catholic Church and other faith communities to their core. In the aftermath of these allegations, survivors of clergy abuse worldwide have shared their stories and begun to hold clergy and church leaders accountable for decades of alleged misconduct. One means they have used to seek accountability is by pursuing civil legal actions for damages and other remedies in court, including California courts.
The website BishopAccountability.org identified the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, California, as home to parishes where clergy members accused of sexual misconduct have worked in the past. The Diocese of San Diego encompasses:
- The City of San Diego
- South Bay
- San Diego County
- North County
- Imperial County
Clergy abuse survivors in California with questions about seeking accountability through the courts are invited to contact our clergy abuse injury lawyers at Winer, Burritt & Tillis, LLP, for answers, and to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation.
Holding Perpetrators and Enablers of Clergy Abuse Accountable
There are various ways for survivors to hold perpetrators and enablers of clergy abuse accountable for their misconduct. Some participate in criminal prosecutions of their abusers. Others advocate in the public sphere. Others work to change the church from within. These are all worthwhile efforts.
Taking civil legal action is another powerful way to seek accountability for clergy abuse. Courageous survivors of clergy abuse have filed lawsuits in jurisdictions across the country seeking damages and other relief from their alleged abusers and church entities. Through these lawsuits, they have helped to uncover evidence that church leaders sometimes covered up or ignored clergy abuse, rather than confront and address it. Lawsuits allege that as a result of this negligent and reckless conduct, even more victims suffered abuse.
In California, survivors of sexual abuse may file suit for damages and other relief against their abusers and others whose actions enabled the abuse. The law dictates a fixed window of time—a statute of limitations—in which survivors can file those claims. The window varies according to whether the survivor was over or under 18 at the time of the abuse. Legislators in the California Assembly want to expand that window in cases of childhood sexual abuse, and to revive some claims that have already expired under current law.
Recovering Damages and Other Relief in Cases of Clergy Abuse
Clergy abuse can devastate victims. The money survivors may recover through a lawsuit cannot eliminate that pain, but it can help support survivors as they recover from their trauma. Survivor lawsuits can also achieve broader results. By seeking punitive damages against church institutions, plaintiffs can send a message that punishes and deters misconduct. Similarly, through a claim for injunctive relief, survivors can ask courts to force church entities to take affirmative measures to prevent future clergy abuse.
Many legal actions alleging clergy abuse describe violence endured by a single plaintiff. Sometimes, however, a group of similarly situated survivors, all of whom suffered similar abusive actions, may band together and pursue group litigation. The procedure for such a claim is different—although group litigation, too, typically seeks compensatory, punitive, and injunctive remedies.
Filing a lawsuit does not guarantee a particular outcome. Some lawsuits do not succeed. But, in the case of clergy abuse, many survivors have recovered substantial sums of money as compensation, and have furthered their goals of changing church practice through punitive and injunctive relief as well.
Clergy Abuse Statute of Limitations For Adult Abuse in California (proposed new statute probably effective January 1, 2020)
Under California procedural law, the time limits for filing a claim alleging clergy sexual abuse depend on the age of the plaintiff at the time of the abuse. A recent procedural code provision provides that if the plaintiff was over 18 at the time of the alleged abuse, then the victim must file the claim no later than:
- 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.
Current Time Limits on Clergy Abuse Claims (old statute)
When a claim involves allegations of childhood clergy abuse, the time limits are longer. A lawsuit related to childhood sexual abuse must be filed no later than:
- 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 sexual abuse.
The timeframes applicable to childhood clergy abuse above apply only to claims against the actual alleged perpetrator of the abuse. Under current California law, claims against anyone who enabled or failed to prevent childhood sexual abuse—such as those typically made against church leadership and entities like the Diocese of San Diego—must be filed before the plaintiff reaches age 26.
New Clergy Abuse Statute For Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse (Effective January 1, 2020):
Assembly Bill 218 May Bring New Time Limits for Childhood Clergy Abuse Claims
Assembly Bill 218 is currently pending in the California Assembly. As drafted, it would extend the timeframes for filing claims alleging childhood clergy abuse. These changes could greatly expand the number of Californians who have the right to pursue legal action for the clergy abuse they suffered.
The proposed provisions of the bill would allow survivors, until they turn 40, to sue church entities for enabling or failing to prevent childhood clergy abuse. They would also revive, for a period three years, childhood clergy abuse claims (and other childhood sexual abuse claims) that expired under existing law. Finally, the provisions would impose treble damages on anyone who covered-up childhood clergy (and other sexual) abuse.
Consult a California Clergy Abuse Attorney
At Winer, Burritt & Tillis, LLP, we aim to give solid support and sound advice to survivors of clergy abuse who think they may be ready to hold their abusers and church institutions accountable through the legal process. Speaking with one of our caring, experienced clergy abuse attorneys is free, confidential, and comes with no obligation. Call us at (800) 652-6137 or visit us online to learn more.