L.A. now the flash point on priest abuse

A new California law Tuesday will lift the statute of limitations in certain molestation cases. More than 200 lawsuits are expected to be filed immediately.

The epicenter of the Roman Catholic sex-abuse scandal may be about to shift from Boston to Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the country.

Tuesday, a new California law takes effect that will lift the statute of limitations in certain molestation cases. This means that victims of priest sexual abuse from decades past can sue the Roman Catholic Church or other institutions in the state's civil courts - potentially opening a bigger chapter in the scandal and causing more damage to the Vatican.

At least 200 individual cases, which may be grouped before one or more judges, are slated to be filed Thursday. At least 100 more cases are in some stage of formal preparation.

The opening of the California floodgates will bring several new factors into play. On the one hand, California puts no limits on punitive damages - opening the church up to wider financial impact than in Massachusetts. On the other hand, the large Hispanic population in Los Angeles gives that archdiocese a cultural makeup that, experts say, could be less prone to filing lawsuits.

"The Boston pattern is not going to simply replicate itself, and that will make the California chapter important to watch," says the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Jesuit priest based in New York City and editor of First Things Magazine. "We will see that different bishops have dealt with the same situation in various ways. It will be most interesting to see how things have been governed in the largest diocese by Cardinal Mahony."

Until now, victims of childhood sexual abuse could sue up until their 26th birthday or within three years of discovering that their emotional problems could be linked to a molestation. Following nationwide revelations of clergy wrongdoing, however, the California Legislature in July amended its statute of limitations to allow the older lawsuits. Sacramento legislators passed the legislation without a dissenting vote in either house.

"In the past, the legal system rewarded criminals," says Mary Grant, Los Angeles regional representative for SNAP, the nation's largest self-help group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. "If they were able to silence their victims long enough, then they were free to continue abusing others. If enough come forward during this time, we could see the beginning of the end of that behavior."

The new law - which does not single out the Catholic Church but includes schools, companies, and children's groups - is expected to be challenged on constitutional grounds. Some experts say the law's retroactive nature is legally questionable because it is analogous to a poker dealer telling his players on the last round that "deuces are wild."

Others say the Legislature is free to change the law's limitation period whenever it wants.

"We modeled the language after another statute the state passed a few years ago giving victims of the Northridge earthquake more time to file damages," says Larry Drivon, the Stockton-based lawyer who wrote the law. Mr. Drivon's firm has worked on such cases for years, including suits against the Boy Scouts, Little League, and several religious institutions. "We didn't just fall off the turnip truck. We think this will stand."

It was, in fact, the release of church documents in the Boston archdiocese that paved the way for the California law.

"When the public began to get an idea for how widespread such abuse was, the story had legs," says Drivon, who had made attempts at such legislation before but failed. "We thought the timing was right, and we were correct."

Kathryn Freberg, a lawyer for 76 sex-abuse clients, won two large settlements in 2001. She agrees that the timing has been right. "The fall of Bernard Law in Boston has opened the floodgates here," she says.

But besides a higher number of Catholics in Los Angeles, several factors make the story different in California:

• The state's lack of a cap on punitive damages means the church could be far more vulnerable in monetary damages. "The financial exposure in these suits is great and worrisome," says Terrence Tilley, chair and professor of Religious Studies at Ohio's University of Dayton, a Catholic university. "Because the normal mode of incorporation vests all diocesan property, the church's parochial schools, some high schools, and central office property could all be at risk. That is why the church hierarchy is really worried."

• Removing the statute of limitations could put scrutiny on church documents - both personnel and financial records - that go back decades. It could draw out cases where some of the accused clergy have died.

• A third factor is how Hispanics will respond. Because they are more culturally and socially tied to the Catholic Church, many have long refused to formally acknowledge abuse for fear of being seen by peers as attacking God. "To Hispanics, the priest is everything, and the church is God," says Carlos Carillo, a Hispanic Catholic who was molested 20 years ago and recently settled out of court. "There is also the tradition of the machismo male ego - guys who won't tell anyone, wife, friend, father, or mother."

• Another question mark may be the public's sustained sense of outrage. Though many polls say overwhelming numbers of both Catholics and the general public want systemic change within the church concerning tolerance of abusive priests, some observers say the most sensational part of the story may have already played out.

Still, many observers say that Cardinal Roger Mahony and his system of church governance are likely to be in the hot seat. At a 1999 trial in Stockton, Calif., Cardinal Mahony testified that while bishop there from 1980 to 1985, he had no idea that the defendant, the Rev. Oliver O'Grady, was a pedophile. But Mahony was later directly contradicted by three subordinates. Several jurors later said they found the diocese guilty of "malicious intent" because they felt Mahony had not told the truth.

"If this verdict had come out this year instead of then, Cardinal Mahony would be in the same place Law is today," says Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has handled more than 700 sex-abuse cases against the Catholic Church over 20 years. "The climate was different then, and the case didn't get widely covered. But such behavior will be coming to light now."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.