Louisiana bill doubles down on child sex abuse ‘lookback window’

WWLTV [New Orleans, LA]

March 8, 2024

By David Hammer / WWL Louisiana Investigator

The N.O. Archdiocese has been in bankruptcy for 4 years, trying to deal with almost 500 abuse claims against priests, deacons and lay employees.

As the Louisiana Supreme Court considers whether to strike down a state law that revived expired claims of child sexual abuse, the Legislature is preparing to double down on the so-called “lookback window.”

Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, pre-filed a bill for the legislative session that begins Monday in Baton Rouge. It would take the three-year lookback window that was enacted in 2021 and extend it to June 14, 2027. If adopted, it would give the alleged victims of decades-old child abuse an additional three years to file a civil lawsuit.

“We know from empirical data that most of the people that report these abuses are between the age of 50 and 70 years old and an average around 52 or 53 in males,” Luneau said. “And they need an opportunity to come back and make these claims. And the fact of the matter is, if we’re not going to protect the children, then … what are we doing here?”

The Catholic Diocese of Lafayette is challenging the constitutionality of the lookback window. The church argued at the state Supreme Court in January that retroactively eliminating the deadline to file a lawsuit infringes on the “vested property rights” of alleged abusers and other potentially liable parties – such as organizations that employed abusers, allowed abuse to take place or failed to stop it.

At oral arguments Jan. 23, Supreme Court justices asked questions suggesting they could easily rule that the Legislature overstepped its authority when it took away the right to avoid a lawsuit after the so-called “prescription” period had expired. On the other hand, Justice Jay McCallum noted that right was granted by the Legislature, and, paraphrasing Job, said, “That which the legislature giveth, it can also taketh away.”

Luneau said he’s undeterred by the impending Supreme Court decision.

“This is not an anti-religion bill or anything like that because it applies to all organizations that had people that were involved with them that sexually abused children,” he said. “So, the Catholic Church is one of those institutions, as are other religions, as are other groups of various sizes throughout the state.”

But the Catholic Church and its affiliates face the biggest concentration of revived claims. The New Orleans Archdiocese has been in bankruptcy for four years, trying to deal with almost 500 abuse claims against more than 300 priests, deacons and lay employees.

The fate of those claims hangs in the balance at the Louisiana Supreme Court. If the justices rule the lookback window can stand, the archdiocese’s liability could reach hundreds of millions of dollars. But if it’s declared unconstitutional, abuse victims would be forced to prove that a mitigating force prevented them from filing their claims earlier. That legal burden would likely give the New Orleans church leverage to settle the claims in its bankruptcy case for pennies on the dollar.

The Legislature unanimously adopted a lookback window in 2021 and it is set to expire this coming June 14. Survivors and advocates pushed for the law by explaining how difficult it was for children in the 1960s, 70s and 80s to report abuse perpetrated by trusted adults within the one-year deadline legal deadline that existed at the time. Even after the deadline for filing a lawsuit was extended in 1993 to give victims time after they turned 18 to come forward, advocates said it wasn’t enough to help people who tend to repress memories of the abuse for 40 years or more so they can move on with their lives.

In 2022, Luneau sponsored a bill that clarified the intent of the Legislature to have the lookback window apply to all child sexual abuse claims, not just abuse that happened after the prescription period was extended in the 1990s.