Fifteen states have now enacted new laws to help survivors of sexual abuse by clergy. The new laws extend or suspend previous statutes of limitations in order to allow claims that can now stretch back for decades. The Associated Press has reported that a torrent of new lawsuits could surpass anything the U.S. has seen in previous years. Legal experts have estimated that some 5,000 new cases could lead to payouts from the Catholic church of more than $4 billion in California, New York, and New Jersey alone.
California, New York, and New Jersey are among eight states which go the furthest with “lookback windows.” These new windows allow sex abuse claims to go forward no matter how old they may be. Many states have acted in similar fashion to lift the restrictions that once shut people out if they didn’t bring their claims of childhood sex abuse soon enough after the fact. Many people were previously mandated by law to bring viable claims by the time they reached their early 20s.
New Laws and Bankruptcy
While lawyers across the country are actively seeking to represent people who were sexually abused by priests and others in clergy abuse lawsuits, AP reports that many Catholic dioceses are now worrying about the difficulty of defending some very old claims. Many churches are considering bankruptcy as they establish victim compensation funds. Some dioceses are selling real estate to survive.
Some churches have already declared bankruptcy in trying to pay off claimants, which is often not the best result for the latter. Survivors’ lawsuits are suspended when a diocese files for bankruptcy. Any potential payments due to them and other church creditors – such as banks, bondholders, contractors, suppliers – are frozen while a federal judge decides how much to pay everyone and still leave enough for the diocese to remain viable. A bankruptcy can be orderly, but it can also be problematic, as many victims of last year’s Camp Fire in California can attest. A bankruptcy filing by a church or diocese can cut court costs and time, but claimants often receive less than they would have in a successful trial.
Slow Grinding Wheels of Justice
Many abuse survivors may not mind waiting for a diocese to work out its financials to avoid bankruptcy. Many have learned to wait as a way of life. The AP interviewed one 71-year-old woman whose claim dates back to the 1950s. She told AP that a priest raped her repeatedly in a confession booth beginning when she was seven years old.
“It’s (the new California law) like a whole new beginning for me,” said 71-year-old Nancy Holling-Lonnecker of San Diego. She now plans to file her case in California where a three-year window is opening for such lawsuits in the beginning of 2020.
“The survivors coming forward now have been holding on to this horrific experience all of their lives,” she told the AP. “They bottled up those emotions all of these years?”
AP interviewed more than a dozen lawyers and clergy abuse watchdog groups to conclude that potential payouts could surpass the $4 billion paid out since clergy sex abuse cases first hit the news in the 1980s.
Average Payouts since 2003
Lawyers cautioned that they could not predict the future, but several told AP they believed payouts could exceed the $350,000 national average per child sex abuse case since 2003. On the higher end, the church paid an average of $1.3 million per case in 2003, the last time California opened a one-year window for sex abuse lawsuits. AP said that figure “offers a range of total payouts in the three big Catholic states alone from $1.8 billion to as much as $6 billion.”
Me Too Effect
The “Me Too” effect could also shape the older sex abuse lawsuits. The recent sex abuse awakening that seems to have ushered in a new sociopolitical zeitgeist could also fuel these cases. The outing of high-profile celebrity abusers like Harvey Weinstein and others, along with Summer 2018’s explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report, has also fueled the fire. That report found that 300 credibly-accused priests had abused more than 1,000 children in some seven decades. Attorneys general in nearly 20 states have since launched criminal investigations of their own.
“Americans are arguably more disgusted than they’ve ever been with clergy sex abuse and the Catholic church’s longtime cover-up,” said attorney David Matthews, whose law firm represents alleged sex abuse victims in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, California, Texas, and elsewhere.
“The abuse is one thing, but the cover-up problems are just as bad, or even worse,” said Mr. Matthews. “The pervert may act on impulse, from some deep inner sickness. The cover-ups, on the other hand, are more diabolical, especially when the church hides abusers and then moves them into some other parish where they can prey on still more children.”