| An explanation
of the clergy abuse litigation in California
October 9, 2004
More than 850 civil cases are pending against Roman Catholic
dioceses in California, filed by plaintiffs who allege they
were abused by priests and other church officials. Some of
the cases date back more than 70 years.
District attorneys around the state also have filed a number
of criminal cases against priests or former priests who served
in California dioceses.
The most well-known cases nationwide are those brought against
the Catholic church in Boston, where the national clergy-abuse
scandal broke in 2002. The sex-abuse scandal there led to
the resignation of former Cardinal Bernard Law and a settlement
of $90 million for more than 550 plaintiffs. It is the largest
individual settlement to date.
Many other dioceses around the country have settled similar
claims. The Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., and the Diocese
of Tucson, Ariz., have filed for bankruptcy, claiming they
can't afford to pay the millions of dollars in civil judgments.
Experts say the California dioceses could be forced to pay
out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to molestation
victims. Plaintiffs attorneys and legal analysts familiar
with the litigation have said the size of a settlement in
Southern California alone could exceed the $90 million record
set in Boston.
--- THE CIVIL CASES:
The abuse cases in California have been coordinated into
three geographic groups referred to as Clergy I, Clergy II
and Clergy III. The cases span the state's 10 dioceses and
two archdioceses, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well
as dozens of religious orders and hospitals, schools and other
institutions affiliated with the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.
Their background and status:
_ Clergy I and II: The Southern California cases are in settlement
negotiations overseen by Los Angeles County Superior Court
Judge Haley Fromholz. Attorneys say they are moving forward
with closed-door settlement negotiations despite nearly two
years of talks.
Church attorneys have been providing "proffers,"
or summaries of the confidential files kept on accused priests,
to plaintiffs' attorneys. Those proffers will become public
information at some point in the negotiations, according to
attorneys from both sides.
Among the sticking points: some insurance carriers representing
the various dioceses have threatened not to participate in
a settlement; and the sheer number and complexity of the cases.
_ Clergy III: The Northern California cases are a trial track
overseen by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw.
While settlement remains a possibility in many of the cases,
the judge is actively pushing the cases toward trial.
Attorneys are pursuing a different strategy in Northern California
because there are fewer cases and because the cases weren't
consolidated under one judge until this year, much later than
those in Southern California. Because of that, many individual
cases were well into the discovery phase when consolidation
A handful of cases are expected to go to trial as early as
March. They will represent the first trials since consolidation
and involve a sampling of lawsuits from dioceses across Northern
California, including Oakland, San Jose, Stockton, Santa Rosa
--- CASE BREAKDOWN BY REGION:
_ Clergy I covers 556 cases against the Archdiocese of Los
Angeles and the Diocese of Orange. Together, the dioceses
have more than 4.6 million parishioners.
_ Clergy II covers 140 cases from the Diocese of San Diego
and the Diocese of San Bernardino. Together, the dioceses
have about 2 million parishioners.
_ Clergy III covers 160 cases from the dioceses of San Francisco,
Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, Santa Rosa, Monterey, San Jose
--- WHY ARE THERE SO MANY LAWSUITS?
The state Legislature passed a law in 2002 that suspended
the statute of limitations for one year to file molestation
claims, opening the door for hundreds of abuse lawsuits that
were previously rejected because the allegations were too
old. Under the law, plaintiffs had until Dec. 31, 2003, to
file a molestation lawsuit. The law applied to all victims
of sexual abuse, not just those who allege wrongdoing by priests.
Previously, alleged victims could sue only until their 26th
birthday or three years after a time they could show they
discovered they had emotional problems linked to molestation.
--- THE CRIMINAL CASES:
In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California
law that erased the statute of limitations for filing criminal
molestation cases. As a result, the state overturned convictions
and dropped charges against as many as 800 California molestation
suspects, including Catholic priests. In Los Angeles, the
ruling forced prosecutors to drop charges against 10 of 11
Other prosecutors statewide are pursuing criminal cases against
priests whose alleged offenses occurred within the legal statute
of limitations. For example, a grand jury in Los Angeles is
investigating alleged sexual crimes by two former priests
with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. As part of that process,
the district attorney subpoenaed confidential priest files
and was recently granted about 480 pages of those files to
turn over to a grand jury. The archdiocese says it will appeal
--- KEY LEGAL ARGUMENTS IN PLAY:
_ The constitutionality of the 2002 state law: Church attorneys
say the state law that opened the door for the civil lawsuits
is unconstitutional because it specifically targeted the Roman
Catholic church. Proponents of the law counter by saying it
also has been used to bring lawsuits against the Boy Scouts
and other religious denominations. They say legal precedent
supports the state Legislature's right to suspend the statute
of limitations as it sees fit.
In July, Sabraw ruled that the state law was constitutional
in almost all cases and allowed all but a handful of the 160
Northern California cases to go forward.
The Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, also has challenged the law
in federal court in San Diego. That diocese was sued under
the law because one of its priests allegedly molested a parishioner
in San Diego in the 1960s. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles
attempted to join that challenge but was denied. The Iowa
diocese continues to pursue the challenge.
_ Whether confidential priest files are constitutionally
protected: Church attorneys say the confidential priest files
being sought by civil and criminal attorneys in clergy abuse
cases are confidential communications protected by the First
Amendment. In the Los Angeles criminal case, the church also
says turning over the documents violates the separation of
church and state because it creates excessive government entanglement
in the affairs of the church.
In September, a retired state judge appointed as a special
master in the Los Angeles case rejected the archdiocese's
arguments and ordered it to turn over about 480 pages of records.
They included communications between the priests, their bishop
and the vicar for clergy, a church counselor. Psychological
reports are exempted. Church attorneys plan to appeal, a process
that could take years.
Sources: Court documents, church documents and interviews
with attorneys, alleged victims and legal experts.
© 2004 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights