Church targets constitutionality of new abuse victim law in case over Lafayette priest

Daily Advertiser [Lafayette LA]

October 10, 2022

By Andrew Capps

The Catholic Diocese of Lafayette is targeting the constitutionality of a law passed in 2021 that expanded the right of sexual abuse victims to sue in a lawsuit over allegations against a deceased Lafayette priest. 

The Lafayette Diocese was sued in September 2020 by a person alleging that Father Stanley Begnaud sexually abused them when they were a teenager in 1961 or 1962. Begnaud, who died in 1985, was named on the list of credibly accused clergy released by the diocese in 2019. 

The alleged victim has not been identified in public court documents, and is referred to only as Sam Doe. Their identity is known by the court and the church. 

Lawsuits like Doe’s generally must be filed within a set number of years, which would normally put abuse from 60 years ago out of contention. 

But the Louisiana Legislature unanimously passed an amendment in 2021 granting sexual abuse victims a three-year window to sue for claims of abuse that had previously expired.

The Legislature updated that law this year to include abuse from any point in the past after the church insisted in lawsuits like Doe’s that the change only applied back to 1993 because it amended a law created that year. 

The Lafayette Diocese also argued that the 2021 law was unconstitutional because it deprived the church of its right to the legal defense that Doe’s claim against it had expired. 

The right to that defense was as legitimate as any property right, the church argued, and the Legislature’s 2021 amendment violated the diocese’s rights to due process and equal protection by removing that defense, making the change unconstitutional and invalid. 

“Regardless of the Legislature’s expression of intent, the Legislature does not have the authority to deprive a party of its vested rights,” the diocese’s attorney Gilbert Dozier wrote in a court filing.

“The courts have consistently ruled that the attempted removal of an accrued or vested substantive right, either a cause of action (to sue) or a defense, is unconstitutional,” he added.

In Doe’s case, 15th Judicial District Court Judge Laurie Hulin rejected the church’s argument that the 2021 law was only retroactive to 1993 and determined the Legislature intended to revive all claims. 

But Hulin’s ruling in January did not address the church’s claims of unconstitutionality, and neither did the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles when it declined to hear the case at the church’s request this past May. 

That issue may threaten the 2021 law that established a three-year window for victims to sue for expired claims. 

This week, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered the appellate court in Lake Charles to hold a full appeal on the matter to decide if Hulin’s ruling was correct and, if so, to rule on the law’s constitutionality. 

“If the (appellate) court determines the 2021 amendment has the effect of reviving the (claim) in this case, it should then address (the church’s) alternative argument that such a result would unconstitutionally impair (the church’s) vested right in the defense of liberative prescription (that Doe’s claim had expired),” the court wrote Wednesday.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

A date for arguments in the case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeal has not yet been set.