Bishops Back Constitutional Challenge to California Sex Abuse Law
By Jack Smith
Catholic News Service
July 15, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO (CNS) -- California's Catholic bishops have endorsed a constitutional challenge by the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, and the Los Angeles Archdiocese to a California law that temporarily suspended the time limit on seeking civil damages in decades-old sexual abuse cases.
The bishops said they agree with arguments that the 2002 law, SB 1779, sponsored by Democratic Sen. John Burton of San Francisco, violates the ex post facto, due process and bill of attainder clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
Under the law, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2003, plaintiffs claiming childhood sexual abuse in California were allowed to file civil claims regardless of how long ago the alleged offense occurred, whether a previous claim in the case had already been settled, or whether the claim was previously barred by the statute of limitations.
By the close of 2003 nearly 800 previously barred civil actions were filed. Nearly 500 of those were against the Los Angeles Archdiocese and most of the remainder were against other Catholic dioceses in the state. One-third of the cases in Los Angeles involve allegations against priests who are dead and some alleged abuse dates back as far as 70 years.
The challenge to the constitutionality of the law arose from a case filed in California against a retired Davenport priest, Father James Janssen, and the Davenport Diocese. In 2003, an unnamed plaintiff filed suit in California accusing the Iowa priest of abusing him nearly 30 years ago during a trip to San Diego.
Since no party to the suit lives in California, the suit was moved out of the state court system into the Southern California U.S. District Court. There the diocese challenged the constitutionality of the state law that waived the statute of limitations that would have prevented the lawsuit.
Susan Oliver, an attorney representing the Davenport Diocese, said, "This case gives us an avenue to address judges in federal court and to point out that (the state law) is unconstitutional in that it targeted the Catholic Church and it revived claims that are stale."
On July 9, the Los Angeles Archdiocese filed a motion to intervene in the case as an interested party. The motion, if allowed, would permit the archdiocese to join the Iowa diocese in arguing that SB 1779 violates constitutional rights.
The statement by the California bishops endorsed the challenge by the Davenport Diocese and echoed many of the points made by the Los Angeles Archdiocese in its motion to intervene.
Despite the "widespread societal prevalence" of child sexual abuse "all but a tiny fraction" of suits filed under the new law have been directed against the Catholic Church, the statement said. The bishops called the law "discriminatory legislation crafted by plaintiffs' attorneys" who were seeking large judgments against the Catholic Church.
The statement and the motion to intervene say SB 1779 is an unconstitutional bill of attainder, a law which singles out a particular person or entity for punishment without benefit of trial. The bishop's statement claims the measure "was designed to transfer massive amounts of the church's assets to self-interested attorneys."
In its motion to intervene, the Los Angeles Archdiocese described the central role of three attorneys who specialize in lawsuits against the Catholic Church in the crafting and support of the bill. Two of them, Jeffrey Anderson and Laurence Drivon, were even introduced at Senate hearings as "technical experts" on the bill by Burton. The motion says trial attorney Raymond Boucher, among other forms of support, provided office space for the advocacy effort in favor of the bill's passage.
The archdiocese said, "The plaintiffs' attorneys who authored SB 1779 and worked for its passage filed claims against Roman Catholic institutions on behalf of over 750 plaintiffs."
The bishops' statement said the bill also violates their due process rights by forcing them to "investigate and defend claims that are so old that doing so is nearly impossible." Not only are many of the alleged priest-perpetrators dead, but "many pastors, bishops, and other clergy who could have knowledge of whether misconduct was alleged or had occurred are also dead."
The bishops also said they believe the law violates the Constitution's ex post facto clause, which bars states from enacting penal laws that operate retroactively.
The bishops said their support for the challenge to the law "does not diminish our abiding concerns" to make sure the church is safe for everyone, to reach out to victims and their families and to "continue our efforts for a just and fair settlement with victims of clergy sexual abuse."
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