Priests’ ‘right’ to not be sued for damages by sexual abuse victims upheld by La. High Court

KTAL-TV/NBC affiliate [Shreveport LA and Texarkana TX]

April 13, 2024

By Marlo Lacen

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s recent opinion determined that a civil judgment against a priest by victims who are now adults could not be applied retroactively.

The opinion on Bienvenu v The Society of the Roman Catholic Church, Diocese of Lafayette, and St. Martin De Tours Catholic Church. In the 2018 case, Bienvenu and several other plaintiffs, ages eight to 14, came forward, accusing a priest of sexual molestation between 1971 and 1979.

Since the filing, the Louisiana Legislature has addressed the state’s civil code as it relates to civil action related to sexual or physical abuse of a minor resulting in permanent impairment, permanent physical injury, or scarring, and how far in the past retroactive damages can be sought.

After several judgments and appeals, the defendants submitted a written application to have the issue reviewed by the Louisiana Supreme Court. The justices obliged, stating, “The sole issue presented for our review is whether the retroactivity provisions of Act 322, as interpreted by Act 386, are constitutional.”

In the opinion, the court explains that it was charged with determining whether the provisions in the acts “operate to disturb the defendant’s vested rights.”

Rights become “vested,” according to the court’s analysis, “when the right to enjoyment, present or prospective, has become the property of some particular person or persons as a present interest.”

Louisiana Civil Code, which is based on the French Code, is designed to protect the rights of property owners after long durations of time have passed. Article 3443 defines this “liberation prescription as “a mode of barring actions as a result of inaction for a period of time.”

After much explanation and case law citations, the court’s ruling is clear.

The justices, “despite the sickening and despicable factual allegations in this case,” concluded that La. R.S. 9:2800.9, as amended, cannot be retroactively applied to revive the plaintiffs’ prescribed cause of action. To find otherwise would divest defendants of their vested right to plead prescription in violation of Article I, Section 2 of the Louisiana Constitution.

The court acknowledged that the intent of the legislation was commendable; they found that it “runs afoul” of the due process protections set forth in the state constitution.

The majority’s opinion reversed and vacated in part a previous judgment rendered in the trial court in favor of the plaintiffs.

Justice Weimer provided the dissenting opinion, calling the legislative action taken in the aforementioned civil codes constitutional.

Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry has initiated an upcoming constitutional convention through proposed HB 800. Perhaps the delegate’s work will include modernizing civil codes to align with the realities of a world that frequently victimizes child victims of sexual abuse and further harms them into adulthood.