L.A. Archdiocese Seeks to Challenge Church Abuse Law

By Gillian Flaccus
Associated Press, carried in Union Tribune
June 29, 2004

LOS ANGELES - Attorneys for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles will request permission to join a constitutional challenge to a California law that has enabled hundreds of alleged victims of clergy abuse to file suit against the church.

The law, passed in 2002, temporarily rolled back the state's statute of limitations in civil cases, allowing the alleged victims to file claims against the archdiocese by a Dec. 31, 2003 deadline. In some cases, the alleged abuse occurred 70 years ago.

The archdiocese has been trying to settle the more than 500 cases made possible by the law for nearly two years. It will continue to negotiate with those plaintiffs even as it challenges the law's constitutionality in federal court, said J. Michael Hennigan, archdiocese attorney.

But challenging the law will give the archdiocese another option if settlement negotiations fall through and the cases go to trial, he said.

The original challenge was filed in federal court by the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, which faces a claim in Southern California because an Iowa priest allegedly abused a parishioner while on vacation in San Diego.

Archdiocese attorneys plan within a week to petition the judge to add them to the counterclaim, saying the law unfairly targets the Catholic church and makes it liable for decades old abuse.

Hennigan said the law was drafted by trial lawyers now representing many of the plaintiffs who filed these lawsuits.

Laurence Drivon, one of those attorneys, said the law should withstand the federal challenge because of precedent set by other cases, in particular a recent Supreme Court decision that reaffirmed the retroactive application of the statute of limitations in civil cases.

In that case, the court ruled that a California woman could sue to retrieve $150 million worth of family paintings stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

"It's the prerogative of the legislature to retroactively apply the statute of limitations and it's been established many times," he said. "They're not making an argument that's novel to this litigation."

Legal experts said the Los Angeles Archdiocese may have a hard time persuading the judge to add them to the challenge because it is not a defendant in the San Diego case. Such a move by the judge would be "very odd," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School at New York City's Yeshiva University and an expert in church law.

Plaintiffs whose cases would be thrown out if the constitutional challenge prevails reacted with anger to the news.

"We're not surprised at another stone wall and legal tactic that's designed to prevent victims from having their day in court," said Mary Grant, a plaintiff who sued under the 2002 law. "This is another indication that church officials have not changed their pattern of saying one thing and doing another."

Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the archdiocese remains committed to reaching out to clergy abuse victims and settling the cases as quickly as possible.

"That there is a challenge going forward should be seen as separate from our commitment to prevent abuse from happening in the future and continuing to reach out to victims who have been harmed," he said. "None of that changes at all."


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