Oakland Priest Abuse Ruling Makes Lawsuits throughout California More Difficult
By Howard Mintz
Contra Costa Times
March 29, 2012
The California Supreme Court on Thursday may have slammed the legal door on a new wave of lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church over long-past instances of clergy abuse.
In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court made it much tougher to bring such cases, barring a lawsuit against the Oakland Diocese on behalf of six brothers who maintain a priest molested them during the 1970s. In short, the ruling said the brothers took too long to sue.
The decision is expected to ripple through courts statewide, where as many as several dozen similar lawsuits are pending and also discourage now-adult victims of childhood priest abuse from moving forward with legal claims.
Support groups for clergy abuse victims decried the outcome, vowing to press the Legislature to intervene. One leading organization said the decision "deprived many victims the right to use the civil courts for justice and accountability."
"It's extremely disappointing," said Joelle Casteix, a spokeswoman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "My heart breaks for the brothers. They fought long and hard."
The Oakland Diocese praised the ruling, saying it simply set boundaries for when victims can sue for claims that stretch back decades. Referring to the hundreds of cases already filed and settled over the past nine years, spokesman Mike Brown said, "We believe the day in court was fairly administered."
The state Supreme Court was faced with a tangle of
California laws that in the past decade expanded the rights of clergy abuse victims to sue, while at the same time ensuring those rights do not expose the church to defending lawsuits indefinitely.
The justices concluded the statute of limitations barred the Oakland case because the brothers did not capitalize on a new one-year window to bring such old claims the Legislature set in 2002. The Legislature opened that door for suits against the church in response to a nationwide scandal over allegations of priests abusing children decades ago.
The resulting avalanche of lawsuits included many in California that produced hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for victims of priest abuse.
But as the Oakland case demonstrated, new lawsuits continue from adults hit with the emotional fallout from abuse decades after the fact. The Supreme Court case centered on the "Quarry" brothers, who were in their 40s and 50s in 2006 when they linked their adult psychological problems to past incidents of priest abuse.
The brothers alleged they were molested as children by Donald Broderson, an Oakland priest who was forced to resign in 1993 as a result of abuse allegations. He died two years ago.
The ruling may cut short other lawsuits alleging church officials failed to take steps to prevent clergy abuse when they became aware of a wayward priest, including another case against the Oakland Diocese involving former priest Stephen Kiesle. Dioceses from Santa Rosa to Sacramento are defending similar cases that were awaiting the outcome of the Oakland ruling.
Rick Simons, a Hayward lawyer who represents clergy abuse victims, said the state Supreme Court decision forecloses lawsuits for many people with older allegations of molestation who did not move to sue earlier. But he stressed that large numbers of victims will fall in the right window of time to still get their day in court.