Void of '03 Abuse Law Sought
Attorney for San Diego Diocese Says the State Statute Unfairly Targets the Catholic Church

By Jean Guccione
Los Angeles Times
September 9, 2005

SAN DIEGO — Lawyers for the Roman Catholic Church asked a federal judge Thursday to overturn a state law that opened the door to hundreds of lawsuits against the church and other institutions over childhood sexual abuse.

Two California judges already have upheld the constitutionality of the 2003 California law, which suspended time limits to allow adult victims to sue institutions over their childhood sexual molestations.

Arguing on behalf of the San Diego Archdiocese and an order of nuns, attorney J. Michael Hennigan said the law unfairly targets the Catholic Church. Hennigan also represents the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

He also said the church has suffered an "economic holocaust" in having to pay out hundreds of sexual abuse claims.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York, who represents alleged victims in the case, pointed out that most of the money paid in church settlements has come from insurers, not the church.

During three hours of oral argument in federal court in San Diego, U.S. District Judge William Q. Hayes asked Hennigan repeatedly, "What religious practices have been burdened by the statute?"

Courts have upheld the constitutionality of laws banning peyote use in Native American rituals and polygamy among Mormons.

A law banning ritual animal killings by members of the Santeria religion, however, was overturned because it did not apply equally to slaughterhouses, exterminators and others who kill animals for nonreligious purposes.

Hennigan said the Legislature's action in creating the law amounted to "a communist blacklist," and accused lawmakers of "shaming" Catholics.

Hamilton countered that the law applied equally to the Boy Scouts and other institutions.

Hayes did not rule immediately. Hennigan said the church would appeal if it loses.

Nearly 1,000 lawsuits were filed against the Catholic Church in California in 2003, when state lawmakers lifted the statute of limitations for decades-old civil abuse claims.

The church already has paid $250 million to hundreds of alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse.

More than half the cases remain open, including 544 against the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Hennigan said Thursday that he hoped to reach a settlement with the Los Angeles claimants before the constitutionality issue was resolved.

Thursday's argument involved a woman identified in court papers as Melanie H. She is suing the San Diego Diocese and the Sisters of the Precious Blood for allegedly failing to protect her from sexual assaults, including rape, as a 12-year-old at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Escondido. One of her alleged abusers, Father Victor Uboldi, is dead.

The woman still suffers from psychological trauma and has attempted suicide several times, according to court documents.

The case is one of 140 claims pending against the San Diego Diocese involving 47 priests, 10 brothers, seven nuns and seven laypersons.