Ruling may boost civil abuse suits
Victims see another route after court rejects
By Steve Carney, Globe Correspondent, 6/28/2003
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The Supreme Court on Thursday struck
down a California law extending the statute of limitations
in criminal cases of child sex abuse, but left unscathed another
state law that temporarily lifts the time constraints on civil
cases and could spawn even more lawsuits against the Catholic
The 1994 law that the high court rejected had retroactively
opened prosecution in cases where victims thought they had
long missed their chance at justice. That door has once again
closed, but a window of opportunity remains open for victims
to seek recourse in civil courts because of a law the California
Legislature passed last year suspending the statute of limitations
in abuse lawsuits for the entirety of 2003.
''The Supreme Court's decision is clearly going to increase
the resolve of the victims of pedophile priests to ensure
they get complete justice,'' said Raymond P. Boucher, whose
Beverly Hills law firm represents 220 victims. ''Right now
the only front that exists, unfortunately, is the civil front.''
He said a ''silver lining'' of the Supreme Court's decision
may be that more victims come forward, seeking judgments in
civil trials. Boucher added he is confident the law easing
the statute of limitations in civil cases will pass constitutional
muster, an opinion shared by Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor
at the University of Southern California and a constitutional
''The Supreme Court has said since early in history, the
ex post facto clause applies only in criminal cases,'' he
''The government cannot create retroactive criminal liability,
but the government can create retroactive civil liability,
as long as it's reasonable. And reasonableness is a test that
is very deferential.''
Ironically, the Supreme Court decision may yet boost the
legal claims of abuse victims. Because accused molesters outside
the statute of limitations no longer face the danger of criminal
charges, they can no longer refuse to testify in civil trials
by asserting their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
''When we take their depositions,'' Boucher said, ''they're
going to have to answer the questions and explain exactly
what they did to these young men and women.''
Before the new law affecting abuse lawsuits took effect Jan.
1, victims of child sex abuse had to sue by the time they
turned 26, or within three years of discovering that any emotional
problems they had were related to the abuse.
The new law not only paved the way for many new civil suits,
but also allowed victims to refile lawsuits that previously
had been dismissed because they came after the statute of
limitations had expired.
Although the legislation grew out of the scandal involving
the Catholic Church, the change allows lawsuits against any
institution that employed a known molester who continues abusing
The church first threatened to fight the new law, calling
it unfair because of the difficulties in defending itself
in sometimes decades-old cases.
In early December, priests and bishops throughout California
warned their parishioners that the law about to take effect
would bring a wave of lawsuits, sapping the church of funds.
Boucher estimated the church could be facing suits totaling
billions of dollars. Now that wave could swell even further
in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, as victims shut
out of the criminal courts seek remedies in the civil arena.
''We are going to be encouraging people to be filing civil
lawsuits as now, probably, the only recourse to get these
priests' names out in the press and out in the public,'' said
Terrie Light, a board member of the Survivors Network of those
Abused by Priests.
''The media will not print names unless there's some legal
action. I see no other way for people to find out.''
But the church dropped its threat to challenge the law and
in December the Archdiocese of Los Angeles met with victims'
attorneys to negotiate some settlements and avert trials.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said he did not
expect a flurry of new civil lawsuits against the church because
most of the alleged victims of the accused priests set free
by the Supreme Court ruling already had concurrent lawsuits
''If there are others, my guess is they will take appropriate
steps to decide what they are going to do,'' he said. ''The
final goal for everybody is to get this resolved. Certainly,
the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is not celebrating in any way.''
This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 6/28/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.