In April the Diocese of Camden, which encompasses six counties in southern New Jersey on the outskirts of Philadelphia agreed to pay $87.5 million to settle claims involving clergy sex abuse with some 300 alleged victims in one of the largest cash settlements involving the Catholic Church in the United States.
This agreement, it could be argued, was made possible only after New Jersey expanded the window of its civil statute of limitations to allow for victims of sexual abuse by priests to seek legal compensation. This “lookback window” let child victims sue up until they turn 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The previous statute of limitations was age 20 or two years after first realizing the abuse caused harm.
Statutes of limitation have often been the biggest roadblocks for victims of sexual abuse by clergy seeking justice. Most childhood victims of sexual abuse suffer trauma that causes them to delay disclosure of their abuse until they are older. Statutes of limitation effectively prevented victims from obtaining justice and from naming their perpetrators publicly for fear of retaliation. But over the last two decades, changes to statutes of limitation and lookback windows have given victims of clergy abuse a chance for the justice they were denied so long. Over 40 states have either changed their statutes of limitations or had bills pending to do so. Eighteen states extended or suspended statute of limitations to allow child sex abuse claims stretching back decades, and unleashed thousands of new lawsuits against the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.
But two recent events threaten to the slow the march of justice for victims of clergy abuse. In California, Catholic bishops have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a case challenging the recently enacted lookback window expanded the time survivors of childhood sexual assault have to file their claims. Lawyers for the Catholic bishops assert the law is unconstitutional because California already gave victims a chance to sue in 2002 — when it opened a one-year portal for sex abuse survivors to file claims with no time limit attached — and because it retroactively adds new liabilities.
In Pennsylvania a bill, which passed in the state house, that would open a two-year lookback window for child sex abuse survivors to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers has stalled in the state senate and looks unlikely to see a floor vote. The senate refusal to advance the bill is made more painful for victims since it comes on the fourth anniversary of a landmark grand jury report that found Catholic church leaders in Pennsylvania covered up rampant sexual abuse involving hundreds of priests and at least 1,000 victims.
Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, a practicing Catholic, has been accused of stalling the bill to protect the church. In public she expresses concern over the bills legality, but victims in the state continue to question whether her fealty is to them, or the church. They can’t help but question if the record settlements against the Catholic Church in New Jersey and other states are influencing Ward’s reluctance.
In California the lawyers for the Catholic bishops assert the law is unconstitutional and add that their clients have already paid more than $1.2 billion to resolve claims filed during the original one-year window. What they don’t mention in their filing is that the Catholic Church, under the current lookback window in California is facing hundreds or thousands of cases seeking potentially billions of dollars in retroactive punitive damages.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) lambasted the bishops’ petition, issuing a statement: “The 2002 window lasted one year, barely enough time for victims to find their courage or their voices. Many only heard about the window or found their courage too late. This new three-year window is allowing survivors in a huge state the time to speak out, get help, and come forward. We believe it is that bravery that is scaring California’s Catholic bishops.”
Statutes of limitation have long been one of the the biggest roadblocks for victims of sexual abuse by clergy in seeking justice. Most childhood victims of sexual abuse suffer trauma that causes them to delay disclosure of their abuse until they are older. According to CHILDUSA, statistically, 1/3 of the victims of child sex abuse disclose as children and another 1/3 never disclose. Studies show that the average age to disclose is 52, with the median age of 48. Statutes of limitation effectively prevent victims from obtaining justice and from naming their perpetrators publicly for fear of retaliation.
At Saunders & Walker we have long advocated for statutes of limitations to be lengthened or lifted all together in cases of child sex abuse. It is necessary to allow for the unique circumstances that exist in abuse cases, and especially those involving clergy. In almost every case children are reluctant or unable to talk about pedophile priests or face their accusers. There are significant and unique barriers that prevent children from reporting what they intuitively know is inappropriate behavior. Fear of the accusing their abuser, the stigma of being abused, and a reluctance to confront the church often keep sexual abuse from being reported. Many victims of pedophile priests are unable to talk about abuse or face their accusers until they are well into adulthood, putting the crime beyond the reach of the law.
If a priest or another member of a church has sexually abused you, or anybody you know, please contact Saunders & Walker at 1-800-748-7115 to discuss your legal options. All conversations will be kept strictly confidential.
For centuries the Catholic Church has been plagued by the sin of clergy sex abuse. As early as the 16th century the Dutch scholar Erasmus wrote the faithful, “often fall into the hands of priests who, under the pretense of confession, commit acts which are not fit to be mentioned.” But victims had little recourse against their abusers who were protected by one of the most powerful organizations in the world – the Catholic Church.
But in the last two decades the church has faced a reckoning
Admitted to practice law in all federal multidistrict litigation courts, the California State Bar and the Florida Bar. His philosophy is to provide aggressive, quality representations and seek fair compensation for individuals and their families who have suffered injury, death, or sexual abuse.
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