Recent allegations of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct on the part of Catholic Church clergy and leadership have shaken the institution to its core. Other faith communities, including the Southern Baptists, have undergone similar reckonings. Brave survivors of sexual abuse have stepped forward to share their stories of sexual abuse by priests and others in the church. Many of those heartwrenching stories involve allegations of clergy abuse of children. In response, some courageous survivors of alleged clergy abuse in California have taken legal action to hold the church accountable.
BishopAccountability.org has named the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, California, as one of many locations where priests alleged to have committed sexual abuse once served. The Archdiocese of San Francisco encompasses parishes in:
- Marin County
- San Francisco County
- San Mateo County
The prospect of seeking accountability for clergy abuse in California through the legal process raises many questions for survivors. The compassionate, knowledgeable sexual abuse injury lawyers at Winer, Burritt & Tillis stand ready to help provide answers. Contact us today schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation with an attorney.
Confronting Clergy Sexual Abuse Through Legal Action
There are many ways to hold individual clergy and church leadership accountable for clergy abuse. One of those is through a civil action for damages and other relief. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse worldwide have filed civil actions alleging that church leaders knew about clergy abuse of parishioners, and of children in particular—but instead of putting an end to it, they reassigned the priests suspected of committing abuse to other parishes, where the priests harmed still more parishioners.
California law entitles survivors of sexual abuse to sue for compensation from perpetrators of abuse and from those who allowed it to happen. Survivors have varying time limits on when they can file suit, depending on how old they were when the abuse happened. However, a bill pending in the California Assembly may change those timeframes for cases of childhood clergy abuse, and may revive claims that have expired under existing law.
Potential Damages in Clergy Abuse Matters
Clergy abuse inflicts severe and lasting physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual pain. Pursuing a civil claim gives survivors a chance to obtain compensation for that harm. But, that’s not all it does. In some cases, California law also allows for punitive damages, which are intended to punish wrongdoers and deter future misconduct. The law also makes it possible for plaintiffs to request injunctive relief—essentially a court order directing defendants, such as church entities, to take specific steps to prevent further sexual violence.
Many claims of clergy abuse involve claims by brave, individual survivors. Sometimes, however, the abuses suffered by a group of survivors are sufficiently similar that they can collectively pursue group litigation against perpetrators and church entities. Like individual actions, group litigation typically seeks compensatory, punitive, and injunctive remedies.
There is no guarantee a clergy abuse lawsuit will lead to a favorable outcome. However, in many instances across the nation when survivors have come forward and pressed their clergy abuse claims in the courts, they have recovered substantial compensation and, just as importantly, spurred further efforts toward meaningful change that have protected many more children against future abuse.
Clergy Abuse Statute of Limitations For Adult Abuse in California (proposed new statute probably effective January 1, 2020)
Distinct statutes of limitation apply in California for claims of clergy abuse depending upon the plaintiff’s age when the abuse happened. For claims related to abuse that occurred when the victim was an adult, the time limit is 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 Under California Law for Filing Claims (old statute)
Claims related to childhood sexual abuse have a longer limitations period, which is the later of:
- Eight years of the date the plaintiff turns 18; or
- Three years of 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.
The limitation periods for childhood sexual abuse apply only to claims against the actual perpetrator of abuse, however. A claim against a person or entity who enabled or failed to prevent childhood sexual abuse—such as the types of claims often alleged against church leadership in clergy abuse cases, like the Archdiocese of San Francisco—must be filed by the time the plaintiff turns 26. As a result, the current law may unduly restrict some claims against church entities.
New Clergy Abuse Statute for Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse (Effective January 1, 2020):
Assembly Bill 218 Proposes Extending the Statute of Limitations for Childhood Clergy Abuse Lawsuits
A bill pending in the California Assembly could lift that restriction. Assembly Bill 218, as currently drafted, would allow survivors until age 40 to file claims against church entities for enabling or failing to prevent childhood clergy abuse, and would extend the timeframes for filing suit against perpetrators to the later of the survivor turning 40 or five years after discovery of the abuse. AB 218 would also open a three-year window for survivors of clergy abuse to revive and pursue previously expired claims, and it would triple the damages survivors could recover from those who covered up childhood clergy abuse.
These changes to the statute of limitations, if passed by the Assembly and signed into law by the governor, could vastly increase the number of Californians who have viable civil legal claims against perpetrators and church entities for childhood clergy abuse.
Our Clergy Abuse Attorneys Can Help
Survivors who step forward with allegations of clergy abuse show immense strength and courage. At Winer, Burritt and Scott, LLP, our compassionate, dedicated attorneys are here to give legal guidance to survivors of clergy abuse who think they may be ready to take a step toward holding their abusers accountable in court.
Speaking with an attorney about your clergy abuse allegation is confidential and does not create any obligation to move forward. Our attorneys aim only to help survivors gain the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about how they choose to proceed. Call Winer, Burritt and Scott, LLP, at (800) 652-6137 or visit us online to learn more.
AB 218 is a new law that gives victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to seek justice through the courts. The new law also extends the statute of limitations. This is important for victims because many times, they will not disclose any details of the abuse they endured, and now have the option to speak out. WBS’s John Winer wrote an article for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “While some survivors may stay silent for years, that doesn’t mean the sexual abuse was okay or didn’t matter. It takes an unspeakable amount of courage to speak out and expose wrongdoing.”