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California Dioceses Brace for New Abuse Suits

December 6, 2002
By Laurie Goodstein - The New York Times

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 3 — This Sunday at Mass in California's 1,100 Roman Catholic Churches, priests will read an ominous letter from the state's bishops warning parishioners that their dioceses are about to be hit by an onslaught of sexual abuse lawsuits that could threaten the assets of church schools, parishes and charities.

The bishops' letter is the church's opening counterattack against a little-noticed law passed by the California Legislature that lifts the statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits for one year, starting Jan. 1, 2003. The law allows plaintiffs to sue churches or other institutions, like hospitals or schools, that knowingly permitted molesters to have access to children or minors.

When the law passed the state legislature unanimously last June, at the height of the outrage over the sexual abuse scandal, California's bishops decided not to lobby against it. But now they are mounting an aggressive campaign to convince Catholics that their church is under attack by trial lawyers greedy for the church's money.

"There is a gold rush to get into the priest litigation business," said Maurice Healy, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. "While trial attorneys may want to portray the church as a large corporate villain with deep pockets, the resources of the church are not infinite, and come from the people in the parishes."

The newspaper of the San Francisco Archdiocese, mailed to Catholics throughout Northern California, will run an article this week with the headline, "Lawyers Aggressively Seek Sex Abuse Business."

While many states have recently eased criminal and civil statutes of limitations on sexual abuse cases, legal experts and victims advocates say they know of no other state with a law as favorable to victims as California. They say the new law, which applies only to civil cases, could make California's courts the next major battleground in the priest sexual abuse scandal.

Lawyers for plaintiffs said in interviews that they are preparing at least 400 lawsuits against California dioceses. They said they anticipated more on behalf of clients who could not sue before because the abuse they say occurred was many years, even decades, ago.

"This law has literally changed their lives," said Katherine K. Freberg, a lawyer in Irvine. "I've seen a transformation in clients who felt like they had no control, no options and that in essence the perpetrator won again. This law has given them hope."

Mary Grant, who won a settlement of a sexual abuse case she brought in 1991 and now works for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP, said that she was trying to telephone all 400 Californians on a list of those who had contacted the organization over the last 10 years to tell them about the new law. She is working from a desk at a Beverly Hills law firm, Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, which has handled many sexual abuse cases.

While the Archdiocese of Boston, also besieged by lawsuits, which have already cost it about $50 million, announced this week that it might declare bankruptcy, the California bishops have not said that they would move in that direction. But in their letter and in other church communications, they imply that the church's people and good works are at risk from the anticipated wave of lawsuits.

"The Catholic church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with `deep pockets,' " the bishops' letter says. "In reality, the vast majority of Catholic assets belong to the people of our parishes, schools, charities and other institutions."

The letter, which many bishops will personally read to parishioners in churches this weekend, says that the church has taken many steps to prevent sexual abuse and that the law is unfair. It says: "Some of the lawsuits may involve the revival of already settled cases and some may involve alleged perpetrators and witnesses long since dead. Under those circumstances it will be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the truth."

Raymond Boucher, a lawyer who has handled many cases against the church, denounced the bishops' letter as a "repulsive and shameless" legal tactic.

"It's a public relations ploy attempting to play on the guilt of Catholics in the hopes they will suppress victims from coming forward and filing claims," Mr. Boucher said in an interview. "I'm going to be in church on Sunday and I plan to stand up and turn my back when they read that letter."

SNAP said on Thursday that it plans to distribute an alternative letter to parishioners on Sunday written by the mother of a molestation victim in Kansas who committed suicide.

The California law waiving the statute of limitations for a year was drafted in part by Laurence E. Drivon, a Stockton lawyer who has won millions of dollars in sexual abuse claims against the church. Mr. Drivon had access to California legislators, he said, because he had been doing pro bono work for the state government on the Enron case.

He said that he and Jeffrey Anderson, a Minneapolis lawyer who has brought hundreds of cases against the Catholic Church around the country, had long wanted to find a way to get around the statute of limitations that they felt had allowed the church to hide so many priest abusers.

He said that he and Mr. Anderson took a group of clients from Oxnard, most Hispanic, to meet with State Senator Martha Escutia of Montebello, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "She was blown away by their testimony," Mr. Drivon said."The crisis was in a fulminating state, and she said, `Yeah, we're going to do something"' about the statute of limitations.

California's law had required that lawsuits against the church or other organizations that knowingly employed sexual abusers had to be filed by the time the plaintiff was 26. The new law waives that limitation for 2003, and allowed people whose lawsuits were previously dismissed on the grounds of statute of limitations to refile.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Ms. Escutia and State Senator John Burton of San Francisco, both Democrats and both Catholics, was passed unanimously by both houses in June. It was signed into law by the governor on July 11. No one lobbied against it, said Gary Wong, chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in Sacramento.

J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the Archidiocese of Los Angeles, said, "I think we perceived that the speed with which it was being enacted, and the emotional environment in the legislature, was such that the church was impotent and wasn't going to be able to change a word."

Mr. Hennigan said the Los Angeles Archdiocese was examining ways of mounting a legal challenge the law next year. He said he had identified several possible arguments: the legislature does not have the constitutional power to reopen final judgments of the courts; the law violates due process; and it discriminates against the Catholic Church.

Mr. Burton said in an interview that the law was not directed at "the holy Roman Catholic Church," but said it ought to be held accountable for reassigning predator priests to work with children.

"It could be fairly costly," Mr. Burton said of his legislation's impact, "but instead of closing parishes and shutting down social service programs, maybe the Holy See could part with some of its treasures."

Michael Falls is one of 11 people whose lawsuit claiming abuse by the Rev. Theodore Llanos was dismissed in 1999 by the California Supreme Court because it fell outside the statute of limitations, his lawyer, Ms. Freberg, said. She said she plans to refile that lawsuit again in January.

Father Llanos committed suicide in 1997, but Mr. Falls said he was still waiting for the church to be held accountable, and to pay for his therapy and his suffering. He said he hoped the new law would make that happen.

"I have a lot of hope," Mr. Falls said in an interview. "But I truly wouldn't be surprised if somehow they were able to squirm out of it. They have unlimited resources."

Copyright The New York Times Company

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests