New Laws in 15 States Could Cost Church More Than $4 Billion

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by William Mahoney, Ph.D.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  December 3, 2019   

Reformed child sex abuse laws spell financial ruin for some dioceses

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - New child sex abuse laws in fifteen states might cost the Catholic Church in the United States more than $4 billion as lawyers and dioceses engage in legal battles.  

Seven states have raised the age limit for individuals alleging they were sexually abused as minors to sue.

In addition to raising the age limit, eight states and the District of Columbia have established a "lookback window" before the new age limits go into effect. The lookback window removes any statute of limitations for an allotted time, typically one to three years from the date the law becomes effective. 

The general public is more disgusted than ever with the clergy sex abuse and the cover-up, and that will be reflected in jury verdicts.

Market Watch reports that some lawyers and clergy abuse watchdog groups have estimated that at least 5,000 lawsuits would be filed in California, New Jersey and New York alone, perhaps costing the Catholic Church in the United States more than double the $4 billion already paid since the 1980s when the clergy sex abuse first surfaced. 

"The X-factor here is whether there will be trials," said Los Angeles attorney Paul Mones.

"If anyone starts trying these cases, the numbers could become astronomical," he added. 

Mitchell Garabedian, the well-known Boston attorney portrayed in the 2015 film "Spotlight" about the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team's investigation into clergy sex abuse, said the public is tired of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, "The general public is more disgusted than ever with the clergy sex abuse and the cover-up, and that will be reflected in jury verdicts."

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Age Limits Raised 

ALABAMA raised the age limit from 21 to 25 this year.

CONNECTICUT raised the age limit from 48 to 51 this year.

MICHIGAN raised the age limit from 19 to 28 in 2018.

PENNSYLVANIA raised the age limit from 30 to 55 in November. The law applies to future allegations of abuse only.

RHODE ISLAND raised the age limit from 25 to 53 for lawsuits against individuals and from 21 to 53 for lawsuits against institutions this year. 

TENNESSEE raised the age limit from 19 to 33 this year.

TEXAS raised the age limit from 33 to 48 this year.

Age Limits Raised and Lookback Windows Established

ARIZONA raised the age limit from 20 to 30 and established a 19-month window that began in June. 

CALIFORNIA raised the age limit from 26 to 40 and established a three-year window beginning in January 2020. California also allowed for treble damages for proven cover-up.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA raised the age limit from 25 to 40 and established a two-year window that began in May. 

HAWAII had a window that began in 2012 and established a new two-year window that began in 2018.

MONTANA raised the age limit from 24 to 27 and established a one-year window that began in May. 

NEW JERSEY raised the age limit from 20 to 55 and established a two-year window that began on Sunday. 

NEW YORK raised the age limit from 23 to 55 and established a one-year window that began in August. The law in New York also allowed for cases that had been previously barred. 

NORTH CAROLINA raised the age limit from 21 to 28 and established a two-year window that begins in January 2020. 

VERMONT removed the age limit and did not establish a lookback window ― meaning one alleging abuse can sue at any age, at any time ― in May.

Most of these lookback windows have already gone into effect, and both lawyers and dioceses have been preparing. 

Most of these lookback windows have already gone into effect, and both lawyers and dioceses have been preparing. 

In anticipation of the one-year window that began on Aug. 14 for New York, one attorney had 515 lawsuits ready to file against the diocese of Albany earlier that month. 

In anticipation of the three-year window that begins next year in California, six California bishops have begun compensation programs for clergy sex abuse victims: the archdiocese of Los Angeles and the dioceses of San Diego, San Bernardino, Orange, Fresno and Sacramento. Victims who accept such compensation agree not to sue, so the programs are an episcopal attempt to minimize financial damage. 

The new laws have already been the last financial straw for some dioceses, forcing them to file bankruptcy. 

The diocese of Rochester, New York, where the famous preacher and writer Bp. Fulton Sheen once served as the local ordinary, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September.

Ongoing and future legal battles could see more dioceses filing bankruptcy.

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