Deadline Nears for Victims to Make Claims
By Jennifer Garza
Sacramento Bee [California]
December 20, 2003
Many victims of childhood sexual abuse are unaware that time is running out on a law that temporarily lifts the statute of limitations on filing lawsuits.
Victims rights groups have spent the past few weeks leafleting church parking lots, malls and other public places throughout the state to inform people about the Dec. 31 deadline.
"Most people have no idea about the law," says Joelle Casteix of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in Newport Beach. "Our goal is to make sure that every child who has been hurt will get the justice he or she needs. My biggest fear is that survivors will come forward too late."
Under the law, which is in effect for 2003 only, childhood sexual abuse victims who are older than 25 may sue employers or responsible third parties who knowingly protected molesters. Previously, alleged victims could not sue after their 26th birthday.
Although the law applies to all California employers, the bill was passed in the wake of revelations that some Catholic religious leaders knowingly transferred pedophile priests without telling parishioners.
While some Southern California dioceses expect the number of claims to surge before the year-end deadline, both victims rights groups and lawyers for the church say they anticipate few last-minute lawsuits against the Sacramento Catholic diocese.
"Right now, we have a couple of people sitting on the fence," says Joseph George, a Sacramento attorney. "We expect some flurry of activity ... but not a significant number."
In the past year, 30 people have filed lawsuits against the Sacramento Catholic diocese. Nearly half of those suits involve one priest, the Rev. Mario Blanco, who served in the Sacramento diocese in the early 1970s. Blanco was dismissed from the diocese in 1973. Church officials later settled two cases with two men who said they were sexually abused by Blanco.
So far, none of the current claims against the diocese has gone to court. James Sweeney, outside counsel for the diocese, says the claims are in various stages of the justice system.
"I would anticipate that ultimately, many if not all of these cases will settle," says Sweeney.
Several dioceses throughout the country have recently reached settlements with plaintiffs.
The most highly publicized was the settlement in Boston. There, in October, church officials agreed to pay $85 million to 552 plaintiffs, averaging more than $150,000 per victim. Church leaders in Seattle and Chicago also reached settlements that month. The Archdiocese of Seattle settled for $7.9 million among 15 plaintiffs while the Archdiocese of Chicago will pay $12 million among 19 plaintiffs.
Sweeney says any settlements paid will be covered by insurance. In Boston, church officials recently put up for sale the former residence of Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned amid criticism of his handling of sex-abuse scandals in the Boston diocese. There are no plans to sell church property to pay for settlements in the Sacramento diocese.
George, who represents 29 of the plaintiffs, believes some of the stronger cases in Sacramento will settle in excess of $1 million.
Sweeney, who is handling the cases for the Sacramento diocese, expects that the amount reached in any settlement would be "appropriate," but he would not discuss specific figures.
"Just because someone files a lawsuit doesn't mean their claim is true. ... You have to assess the extent of the person's damage," says Sweeney.
Despite the push to make victims aware of the approaching deadline, victims rights advocates say that many may be reluctant to file suit but that it is the only way to hold the church accountable.
"Unfortunately, a criminal option is not open to us. I would trade any dollar amount to have my perpetrator behind bars," says Nancy Sloan, 38, a registered nurse who contends she was abused by the Rev. Oliver O'Grady in 1978.
O'Grady spent seven years in state prison for molesting children while serving as a priest in Stockton. He is now believed to be living in Ireland.
Sloan says that for years, she never considered filing suit because the only thing she ever wanted "was for him not to hurt any other children."
"But then I realized that there was no other way to get justice," she says.
Earlier this year, Sloan, who is active in SNAP (www.snapnetwork.org), filed suit against the Stockton diocese.
"It's not the money, it's accountability," she says. "Believe me, I would much rather have my childhood back."
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