The consequences of similar legislation in California and Delaware raises significant concern among Catholic leaders in New York — and in other states where such measures have been floated — about the proposed Child Victims Act of New York.
The New York proposal contains a provision to temporarily suspend the civil statute of limitations for cases of child sexual-abuse, giving alleged victims a one-year “window” in which to file suits that have been time barred by the current statute, no matter how long ago the abuse allegedly happened.
The Child Victims Act is similar to legislation passed in California in 2002, which created a one-year window for alleged victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits that had been time barred under the previous civil statute.
“It (the California’s legislation) has resulted in more than 800 lawsuits — more than $1 billion in claims. The Catholic Church in California has now been forced to settle these claims by selling church properties and curtailing essential programs and services,” according to a statement from the New York State Catholic Conference. “The Catholic Church in New York state would likely suffer the same catastrophic financial harm. Moreover, the legislation may make it impossible for the Catholic Church and other non-profits that serve children to buy insurance, putting in jeopardy their ability to continue to provide services.”
In July 2007, Delaware passed the Child Victim’s Act, which repealed the civil statute of limitations to provide a two-year window during which victims of child sexual abuse can lodge civil suits.
“Since that time, 34 lawsuits have been filed and all 34 have been filed against the Catholic Church and against individual Catholic parishes,” wrote Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien in his Feb. 5, 2009, column in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Review.
That statistic is sobering to Archbishop O’Brien because Maryland is currently weighing a bill nearly identical to Delaware’s: SB 238, which would create a two-year window for victims to file civil suits.
At this point, California and Delaware remain the only two states to have adopted “window” laws. Among other states where comparable legislation has recently been proposed are Colorado, where the statute of limitations would be permanently removed for future civil lawsuits related to child sexual abuse, and a two-year window would be created to allow lawsuits related to abuse alleged to have taken place in the past; Wisconsin, which would repeal the statute of limitations and invoke a three-year window; and Pennsylvania, where HB 1137 would repeal the statute of limitations and provide a two-year window.
In virtually all the affected states, church officials have mounted campaigns pointing out that public agencies — particularly public-school systems — have greater protection than private institutions and are largely exempt from these laws and proposals. Lawsuits against agencies of various state governments generally must be filed within much shorter time limits and are subject to caps on the amount of damages that can be recovered.
Archbishop O’Brien took further issue with attorneys who stand to profit greatly from the anticipated rash of lawsuits against the Catholic Church if all these bills were to become law.
“The Maryland legislation, as with similar bills up for consideration throughout the country, is part of a coordinated national lobbying campaign aimed at making it easier for trial lawyers to bring monetary lawsuits, currently barred by time-limits, against the Catholic Church and other private institutions,” Archbishop O’Brien charged.
In Illinois, Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky asserted that “attorneys representing some claimants and some ‘victims groups’ obviously have a significant financial stake in trying to overturn our diocesan policies.” He made the comment in a Feb. 12, 2009, letter to diocesan officials and parishioners following a ruling in Illinois’ Third District Appellate Court that could reinstate dismissed sexual-abuse cases.
Meanwhile, the New York State Catholic Conference noted that approximately 40 percent of all settlement money in sexual-abuse cases typically goes toward attorney fees.