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
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"
"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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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