Louisiana Supreme Court debates 3-year window for child sex abuse lawsuits

Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]

May 1, 2023

By John Simerman

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The viability of hundreds of lawsuits alleging childhood sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and elsewhere hung in the balance as the Louisiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday over a challenge to a recent state law that created a 3-year “lookback” window to sue.

At issue is a law the Legislature first passed in 2021 and revised last year in response to eruptions in a long-running clergy sex abuse scandal in Catholic churches in Louisiana, backed by studies on delayed recognition of abuse by survivors.

The legislation, which passed overwhelmingly, granted victims of childhood sexual abuse until 2024 to sue over their alleged mistreatment regardless of their age. Previously, they had until age 28.

Louisiana is among more than two dozen states that have carved out grace periods from laws that set terms of “prescription,” when the right to sue normally ends.

Attorneys for Catholic institutions have argued that the law violates the state constitution, by impairing a “vested right.”

The issue landed with the court in the case of “T.S.,” who claimed he was sexually abused in New Orleans as an 11-year-old by a brother at Holy Cross School in 1965. Brother Stanley Repucci plied him with candy and soda and would ask T.S. to wrestle as a ruse to engage in sexual acts, his lawsuit claims.

Last August, Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Sidney Cates IV tossed the suit, agreeing with a federal judge, Jay Zainey, who found last year in a different case that the state lookback period “does not comport with due process under Louisiana law.”

Zainey’s ruling came two years after he told The Times-Picayune that he would recuse himself from any church-related suits after acknowledging he advised Catholic officials on public relations in managing the church’s child sex abuse scandal.

Under the new legislation, several hundred people have filed lawsuits against, among others, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which filed for bankruptcy three years ago.

Ian Atkinson, an attorney for Holy Cross, argued that the time for the Legislature to extend prescription on child sexual abuse claims was before it closed. After that, lifting it compromises the defendant’s rights, regardless of how egregious the acts.

“It would not be correct to say Louisiana is an outlier in this case,” he added.

Justice Will Crain questioned that position, suggesting the Legislature had a clear public policy goal to support the “revival” law.

“Is there any sound policy reason to allow for a child abuser to rest easy with the passage of time?” he asked.

Camille Gauthier, an attorney for T.S., argued that prescription periods are arbitrary by nature, with no guarantees.

“There really can never be a reasonable expectation to be able to close your books in a year,” she said.

Advocates for survivors of childhood sexual abuse sounded optimistic tones outside the courthouse after Monday’s hearing.

“This is not a slip-and-fall case. It’s not a fender bender. We’re talking about the rape, sodomy and sexual abuse of children,” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, a national group.

“What this legislation does is to try to stop the coverup of sexual abuse, protecting our children by exposing sexual predators. People should not benefit in the silence they cause their victims.”

Robb said 26 states and three U.S. territories have passed revival laws. She said the laws have survived court challenges in 10 of 12 states.

“This is a national trend,” she said of the laws.

Attorney Desiree Charbonnet, who represents several New Orleans-area victims of clergy sex abuse, said on the courthouse steps after Monday’s hearing that advocates “scored points” with the seven justices. 

Charbonnet said she suspects a lack of clarity from the courts has held back some survivors from filing lawsuits under the 3-year-window, which closes in June 2024.

“People are going to realize this is a valid law, and that it’s time to come forward,” Charbonnet said.

Prior to Monday’s hearing, Chief Judge John Weimer filed a notice indicating that attorneys for Jesuit High School had previously represented him in a different matter but that he wouldn’t step aside.

“I see no reason to recuse myself from consideration of the current matter,” wrote Weimer, who participated in Monday’s hearing.

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