Clergy sex abuse victims seek rehearing from state Supreme Court

Acadiana Advocate [Lafayette LA]

April 5, 2024

By Stephen Marcantel

Lawyers representing sex abuse victims have asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to invalidate a law that created a three-year “lookback window” in which victims could sue their abusers regardless of how long ago the abuse took place.

Plaintiffs in Douglas Bienvenu, et al v. Diocese of Lafayette and St. Martin De Tours Catholic Church filed an application of rehearing to the Louisiana Supreme Court on Thursday. According to the filing, the group argues that the court overstepped its power and erred in its interpretation of the law.

Attorney General Liz Murrill filed a similar application on Friday warning that the Court’s decision in Bienvenu inches toward tipping the balance of power in state government. 

“This case marks a significant constitutional moment in the Court’s history. Members of the Court have consistently emphasized that the powers bestowed upon our ‘three co-equal branches of government’ must remain ‘separate and distinct,'” Murrill wrote. “That seperation of power — dictated by the Louisiana Constitution itself — ensures that ‘no one branch shall exercise powers belonging to the others.'”

Murrill asked the court to look at a former case and its ruling, Washington v. Glucksberg, to determine how far the Courts arm can actually reach. 

The applications follow a recent Senate bill aimed at clearing up state lawmakers’ intentions when creating the lookback window to gave victims of childhood sexual abuse a means of remedy in civil court.

Cle Simon, an attorney representing Bienvenu, said the two have nothing to do with one another.

“I take that to mean that the Legislature is pissed,” Simon said, “it was expeditiously signed by John Bel Edwards in a matter of days…It was supported by the attorney Jeff Landry, who is now our governor.”

The state Supreme Court ‘supplant(ed)’ the Legislature’s exclusive ability of policy-making and ability set legal time limits for filing civil claims and instead replaced its own policy, the filing reads.

In its decision to toss the case, the state Supreme Court relied on a 100-year dissenting opinion in Campbell v. Holt to make its argument. However, according to the plaintiffs in their application for rehearing, that ruling was later invalidated by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that “does not bar the revival of expired civil claims,” the filing reads.

The court went against the will of the people, the plaintiffs argue in Thursday’s filing, because the legislators, who represent Louisiana residents, voted unanimously to create the lookback window. 

“The (Louisiana) Supreme Court has overstepped its authority and usurped the authority of the legislative branch for doing what the legislative branch is constitutionally authorized to do,” Simon said.

The writ argues that the court contradicted itself when it argued there is a point when a defendant would have legal protection from being sued but then also said that children and those with repressed memories fall into a legal term called contra non valentem, or the inability for an individual, child, or person of ignorance to file a civil claim, meaning that prescriptive period does not end. The plaintiffs said in their application for rehearing that the Supreme Court held up the rights of defendants higher than plaintiffs in this case.

The court used suggestions from previous rulings or dicta to come to a determination without providing a constitutional test to this particular case, the filing reads.

It argues instead the court relied previous cases that were tested on an older version of the Louisiana Constitution that enshrined vested rights and barred retroactive legislation, something that the modern constitution does not have.

Simon argued that the state has a legitimate state interest in tackling sex abuse within the Catholic Church and as part the state’s police powers can enact legislation to fulfil that goal as long as it did so through the legal avenues set for it.

“It’s almost as if they had an agenda that they were trying to reach regardless of how they got to it,” Simon added.

Dozens of states in the US have determined lookback window laws to be constitutional, Simon said. In fact, Louisiana itself had no problems with it when policy regarding childhood sexual abuse victims was introduced in the 90s.

“There was never a challenge to what happened in 1993. No one ever came forward saying, ‘oh what the Legislature has done is unconstitutional,’,” Simon said.

Simon said if a rehearing is granted, it would already spell good fortune to his clients. The Louisiana Supreme Court does not have to grant rehearing but in doing so would insinuate at least one justice has reconsidered their opinion, he said.