In recent years, parishioners and clergy around the world have made allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic Church clergy and other faith communities. Brave survivors of sexual abuse have stepped forward to share their stories, leading to an ongoing and public accounting. Some survivors in California have also taken the step of seeking compensation for the harm they suffered by filing suit in court.
BishopAccountability.org has named the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, California as a location where priests alleged to have committed sexual abuse once worked with children. The Diocese of Santa Rosa encompasses parishes in these California counties:
- Del Norte County
- Humboldt County
- Mendocino County
- Lake County
- Sonoma County
- Napa County
If you have questions about seeking accountability for clergy abuse in California through the legal process, our sexual abuse injury lawyers at Winer, Burritt and Scott, LLP, can help. Contact us today schedule a free, confidential consultation.
Taking Legal Action for Clergy Sexual Abuse
As you are likely aware, survivors of clergy sexual abuse around the country have taken legal action to hold individual clergy members and church leaders accountable for committing and/or enabling clergy abuse. Many reported cases have alleged that regional Catholic Church leadership knew about, but failed to stop, clergy abuse of parishioners, particularly children. Some have also alleged the church covered up abuse by reassigning priests suspected of committing abuse to other parishes, where the priests harmed still more parishioners.
Under California law, survivors of sexual abuse have the right to seek compensation, through the civil legal process, from perpetrators of abuse as well as from those who enabled the abuse. There are specific timeframes under the law for when a survivor can file suit, which vary depending on the survivor’s age when the abuse occurred. Meanwhile, legislators in the California Assembly have recently introduced a bill that would extend those timeframes in cases involving childhood sexual abuse. The bill would also revive some already-expired claims involving childhood sexual abuse and would triple the compensation on anyone who participated in covering up that abuse.
Damages Potentially Recoverable for Clergy Abuse
A lawsuit against perpetrators and enablers of abuse typically seeks compensation for the pain caused by clergy abuse. Many survivors also take comfort in seeking remedies for abuse beyond their own suffering by seeking punitive damages, which punish and deter the church’s institutional misconduct. In the same vein, some survivors also request injunctive relief to force church entities to prevent further clergy abuse.
Because some (but certainly not all) cases of clergy abuse share similar characteristics, some of the legal actions brought against religious entities have taken the form of group litigation by groups of similarly situated survivors. Like the individual actions listed above, these claims also typically seek compensatory, punitive, and injunctive relief from the courts.
Attorneys who pursue clergy abuse claims on behalf of survivors can never guarantee a particular result. But in many cases, survivors have prevailed and recovered millions of dollars in compensation as well as court orders aimed at deterring future victimization.
Clergy Abuse Statute of Limitations in California (old statute)
The California Code of Civil Procedure contains separate statutes of limitation for pursuing a civil action for clergy abuse depending upon whether the plaintiff was an adult or a child when the abuse occurred.
Many reported instances of clergy abuse involve allegations of sexual abuse of children. The statute of limitations for filing a civil action related to childhood sexual abuse in California 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.
Clergy Abuse Statute of Limitations for Adult Abuse in California (proposed new statute, probably effective January 1, 2020)
- 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.
The above limitation periods for childhood abuse claims only apply to claims against the actual perpetrator of abuse. The law limits claims against those whose actions formed the legal cause of sexual abuse to the period defined by the first bullet point above. In other words, under current California law, the type of claim typically asserted against church entities (like the Diocese of Santa Rosa) for enabling childhood sexual abuse must be filed no later than when the survivor turns 26.
New Clergy Abuse Statute for Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse (Effective January 1, 2020):
Assembly Bill 218 Would Extend the Statute of Limitations for Childhood Clergy Abuse Claims
A bill pending in the California Assembly would extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims. As currently written, Assembly Bill 218 would amend the laws above to allow survivors up to age 40 to file claims against church entities for enabling or failing to prevent childhood clergy abuse. It would also extend the timeframes for filing suit against perpetrators to the later of the survivor turning 40 or within five years of discovery of the abuse. These changes could significantly increase the number of Californians who have viable civil legal claims for childhood clergy abuse.
In addition, AB 218 would also open a three-year window for survivors of clergy abuse to pursue claims that have previously expired under California law. This, too, would give survivors with long-past claims the chance to seek accountability.
Finally, AB 218 would impose treble damages on anyone who covered up acts of childhood sexual assault. The allegations that have been made against church leaders as described above could fall within the bill’s definition of cover-up.
Our Clergy Abuse Attorneys Can Help
At Winer, Burritt and Scott, LLP, we have witnessed firsthand the strength and courage of survivors who have stepped forward with allegations of clergy abuse. Our clergy abuse attorneys want to help survivors who are ready to take the first step toward holding their abusers accountable through the court process.
There is no obligation after speaking with our attorneys, but a confidential meeting with our team can help arm survivors of clergy abuse with the information they need to plot their own course forward. 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.”