California Law Spurred Flood of Sex Abuse Suits
By Jean Guccione and William Lobdell - L.A. Times Staff Writers
Hundreds filed claims in one-year window for old
cases. Up to 800 people target dioceses in state.
January 1, 2004
California's yearlong experiment designed to provide justice to
victims of childhood sexual abuse drew to a close Wednesday, with
hundreds of lawsuits having been filed against churches, charities
and youth organizations across the state.
As many as 800 claims filed over the last year by adults
who said they had been molested decades ago as children name
Roman Catholic dioceses in California as defendants. An estimated
500 are aimed at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest,
shifting the focus of the church sex scandal in the United States
from its origins in Boston to the West Coast.
"If Boston was the beginning and the cornerstone of the scandal,
California is going to be the capstone of the crisis," said
Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and national expert on sexual
abuse in the Catholic Church who acts as a consultant to plaintiffs'
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said that,
although many of the claims are true, most allegations are so old
that proving or disproving them is difficult.
"The overwhelming majority of claims against the archdiocese
are several decades old, making them virtually impossible to verify,"
he said. "There are likely many suits that are exaggerated
or just plain false. But, sadly, there are many in which the claimed
abuse did occur. There were men who used their position as a priest
to commit the most awful crimes against the innocent, the trusting
and the faithful."
The civil cases took on more public significance this summer after
the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that had permitted
the retroactive criminal prosecution of decades-old child molestation
The Catholic Church may be the institution hardest hit by the civil
suits. But other organizations have been affected as well by the
state law that lifted the statute of limitations for a year so victims
of childhood sexual abuse could sue employers who failed to protect
them from known molesters.
"The whole notion that the law was created for the Catholic
Church while that may be true, it has much wider consequences,"
said Newport Beach attorney Mark Kelegian, who has filed two dozen
cases against religious organizations and community groups, including
the Boys Scouts of America.
Other lawsuits name a variety of defendants, including the Explorers,
the Salvation Army and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Five men, for example, have accused two male teachers at Monterey
Bay Academy, an Adventist boarding school in La Selva Beach, of
giving them alcohol and marijuana when they were teenagers, then
raping them, according to their lawyer Joseph P. Scully.
And three lawsuits allege that Deputy Chief David Kalish of the
Los Angeles Police Department molested three teenage boys more than
20 years ago when they were Explorers. Kalish, who has denied the
charges, has been on paid leave since March, when the allegations
became public. No criminal charges will be filed.
The exact number of molestation suits filed in California's 58
trial courts could not be tallied, because state lawmakers required
that the identities of defendants remain secret until judges determined
that the accusations appeared legitimate. Some were still being
filed late New Year's Eve afternoon to meet the statutory deadline.
"I am shocked with the number of victims who have come forward,"
said Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg, who represents 139 people
who have accused Catholic priests of sexual misconduct.
David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network
of Those Abused by Priests, said the number of legal claims is "a
painful reminder that literally thousands of California kids have
suffered severely and, for the most part, needlessly" because
church leaders knew of or suspected the abuse but did nothing to
The California cases also should "once and for all disabuse
people of the notion that this was a tiny percentage of priests
who molested children or that the problem was confined to a handful
of dioceses" back East, he said.
Raymond P. Boucher, who acts as court-appointed liaison for the
Southland cases, estimated that as many as 500 people have sued
the L.A. Archdiocese, with as many as 150 more suing the three other
Southern California dioceses Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino.
An additional 150 claims were filed in Northern California, many
of them against the dioceses of San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento
and Santa Rosa, said Stockton attorney Laurence E. Drivon, a national
leader in litigating childhood sexual abuse claims against the Catholic
Considering all cases statewide, as many as 200 priests
some of whom are now dead have been accused of abusing children
in the last six decades.
Lawyers and leaders of victims groups predict that Los Angeles
will surpass other U.S. dioceses in numbers of priests involved
in the scandal and the amount of the settlements. In Boston, the
archdiocese agreed to pay $85 million to 552 victims.
Multimillion-dollar settlements have also been reached in the dioceses
of Chicago; Covington, Ky.; Louisville, Ky.; and Manchester, N.H.
In California, the Diocese of San Bernardino and a religious order
recently agreed to pay $4.2 million to two brothers who had been
abused by their priest. And the Diocese of Oakland reached a $1-million
settlement with a man who said he had been molested more than two
A dozen or more victims' lawyers, plus counsel for the church and
its insurers, have spent the last year trying to come up with a
plan to settle molestation claims against the Diocese of Orange
and the Los Angeles Archdiocese which covers Los Angeles,
Ventura and Santa Barbara counties but they have yet to produce
Speaking for the archdiocese, Tamberg said most allegations predate
Roger M. Mahony's 1985 appointment as archbishop and added that
Mahony instituted tougher policies on sexual abuse.
The spokesman also said the church hoped to reach a settlement.
"Both Cardinal Mahony and the archdiocese desire that legitimate
victims of sexual abuse within the church be fairly compensated
for their suffering when the church was at fault," he said.
The national sex scandal was ignited two years ago when the Boston
Globe won a legal battle to gain access to what would turn out to
be 30,000 pages of documents from the Archdiocese of Boston. The
records, collected in a series of civil suits, showed that church
officials had known about predatory priests for decades and had
gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up the crimes. Cardinal Bernard
Law of Boston ultimately resigned.
The L.A. Archdiocese is fighting the release of similar confidential
documents in pending cases, both civil and criminal citing
religious freedom, including the sanctity of the bishop-priest relationship.
With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, criminal charges against nearly
two dozen Catholic clerics in Southern California including
10 priests and a seminarian in Los Angeles County were dropped.
And criminal inquiries into alleged sexual abuse by at least a dozen
more clergymen in the county were halted, prosecutors said.
After being shunned by church officials, many alleged victims turned
to civil lawyers for help. One said that she didn't want to sue
the Los Angeles Archdiocese but that the Supreme Court decision
had "left me with no options" for justice.
"I've been silent for 29 years," said the 45-year-old
resident of Seal Beach, adding that money wasn't a motivation because
she and her husband are affluent.
Although the statute of limitations for criminal acts could not
be retroactively revised, plaintiffs' lawyers said the same doctrine
against ex post facto laws did not apply to civil cases like these.
But lawyers for the L.A. Archdiocese are expected to test the constitutionality
of the one-year extended statute of limitations if the cases aren't
State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), co-author of the bill extending
the statute, said he had anticipated such a challenge when he helped
draft the legislation and was confident that the law could withstand
The law is a near duplicate of another state statute that reopened
a one-year filing window for homeowners to sue insurers for property
damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The constitutionality
of that law has been upheld by state and federal appeals courts.
"I have always expected the Catholic Church to do everything
in its power to avoid being held accountable for its actions,"
said Dunn, who as a trial lawyer litigated similar cases against
The sexual abuse law was designed to reopen the courthouse doors
to many alleged victims whose suits were thrown out of court in
the 1990s after a series of appellate court rulings concluded that
they had just one year after they turned 18 to sue the church, Dunn
Although state law permits victims to sue until they reach age
26, the courts have interpreted that statute to target only the
actual perpetrators and not their employers, effectively shielding
the Catholic Church and other entities, he said.
In the final weeks and days of 2003, law offices were swamped with
calls from potential clients. Boucher said he got more than 20 calls
Tuesday alone, just one day before the deadline expired, about filing
new cases. His staff voted to postpone a holiday party and work
through Tuesday night and all day Wednesday to make the deadline.
"We are going to find some way to preserve the statute of
limitations" for new clients, he said. "I don't care what
the cost is."