Ruling May Boost Civil Abuse Suits
Victims See Another Route after Court Rejects Calif. Law
By Steve Carney
June 28, 2003
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a California law extending the statute of limitations in criminal cases of child sex abuse, but left unscathed another state law that temporarily lifts the time constraints on civil cases and could spawn even more lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
The 1994 law that the high court rejected had retroactively opened prosecution in cases where victims thought they had long missed their chance at justice. That door has once again closed, but a window of opportunity remains open for victims to seek recourse in civil courts because of a law the California Legislature passed last year suspending the statute of limitations in abuse lawsuits for the entirety of 2003.
"The Supreme Court's decision is clearly going to increase the resolve of the victims of pedophile priests to ensure they get complete justice," said Raymond P. Boucher, whose Beverly Hills law firm represents 220 victims. "Right now the only front that exists, unfortunately, is the civil front."
He said a "silver lining" of the Supreme Court's decision may be that more victims come forward, seeking judgments in civil trials. Boucher added he is confident the law easing the statute of limitations in civil cases will pass constitutional muster, an opinion shared by Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California and a constitutional law specialist.
"The Supreme Court has said since early in history, the ex post facto clause applies only in criminal cases," he said.
"The government cannot create retroactive criminal liability, but the government can create retroactive civil liability, as long as it's reasonable. And reasonableness is a test that is very deferential."
Ironically, the Supreme Court decision may yet boost the legal claims of abuse victims. Because accused molesters outside the statute of limitations no longer face the danger of criminal charges, they can no longer refuse to testify in civil trials by asserting their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
"When we take their depositions," Boucher said, "they're going to have to answer the questions and explain exactly what they did to these young men and women."
Before the new law affecting abuse lawsuits took effect Jan. 1, victims of child sex abuse had to sue by the time they turned 26, or within three years of discovering that any emotional problems they had were related to the abuse.
The new law not only paved the way for many new civil suits, but also allowed victims to refile lawsuits that previously had been dismissed because they came after the statute of limitations had expired.
Although the legislation grew out of the scandal involving the Catholic Church, the change allows lawsuits against any institution that employed a known molester who continues abusing victims.
The church first threatened to fight the new law, calling it unfair because of the difficulties in defending itself in sometimes decades-old cases.
In early December, priests and bishops throughout California warned their parishioners that the law about to take effect would bring a wave of lawsuits, sapping the church of funds. Boucher estimated the church could be facing suits totaling billions of dollars. Now that wave could swell even further in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, as victims shut out of the criminal courts seek remedies in the civil arena.
"We are going to be encouraging people to be filing civil lawsuits as now, probably, the only recourse to get these priests' names out in the press and out in the public," said Terrie Light, a board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"The media will not print names unless there's some legal action. I see no other way for people to find out."
But the church dropped its threat to challenge the law and in December the Archdiocese of Los Angeles met with victims' attorneys to negotiate some settlements and avert trials.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said he did not expect a flurry of new civil lawsuits against the church because most of the alleged victims of the accused priests set free by the Supreme Court ruling already had concurrent lawsuits pending.
"If there are others, my guess is they will take appropriate steps to decide what they are going to do," he said. "The final goal for everybody is to get this resolved. Certainly, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is not celebrating in any way."
This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 6/28/2003.
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