Talks Delay Sexual Abuse Suits in California
By Barbara Whitaker
New York Times
March 10, 2003
OS ANGELES, March 10 - More than 400 people have accused Roman Catholic priests in California of sexual abuse since the state began a one-year moratorium on the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits in such cases, lawyers for the plaintiffs say.
But the flood of litigation expected after the moratorium began on Jan. 1 has largely been held back by a 90-day agreement by plaintiffs' lawyers and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange, the state's two largest church jurisdictions, to delay litigation during talks. While only about 40 civil lawsuits have been filed on behalf of some 60 victims, lawyers said a pattern of abuse had been revealed by the hundreds who had come forward.
"The new statute of limitation law has given them hope," said Katherine K. Freberg, an Orange County lawyer who represents about 80 plaintiffs. "Some of them had contacted attorneys years before and were told they couldn't do anything."
Last spring, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles estimated that there were six to eight offending priests in the archdiocese.
Raymond P. Boucher, a Beverly Hills lawyer who is representing 200 victims in Southern California, said lawyers in Los Angeles and Orange County recently provided the archdiocese with more than 280 people whose claims involve 118 priests dating back about five decades.
J. Michael Hennigan, who represents the archdiocese, said Cardinal Mahony's estimate had referred to priests who were known to be in ministries and subsequently relieved of their duties. Mr. Hennigan said that many of the cases now being filed dated to the 1960's and 1970's and involved priests who are dead. In addition, Mr. Hennigan said, because the archdiocese has been given little more than a list of priests who have been accused, it has been hard to determine the merit of the cases.
"There are no doubt people who were seriously psychologically damaged by what happened to them and there are those who no doubt were not," he said.
Before the statute of limitations was lifted, childhood victims of sexual assault had until their 26th birthday or three years after recognizing problems related to the abuse to file a civil lawsuit. The new law also allows victims to sue institutions as well as the abuser.
Negotiations between the church and lawyers in Los Angeles stumbled recently as the archdiocese argued that the First Amendment allowed it to keep some information private despite Cardinal Mahony's earlier pledge of candor and openness. While the archdiocese says it is willing to provide information on the facts of the abuse, church officials are contending that some documents involve confidential discussions between a priest and a bishop.
"I think at this moment we're relatively comfortable that the information we can give them will be candid and complete and at the same time not force us to divulge some information we feel strongly needs to be protected," Mr. Hennigan said.
Such arguments have been unsuccessful in cases in Florida, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
"What this is indicative of is an incremental movement occurring nationwide away from the position taken in Dallas where they assured the public and the faithful in the United States they were going to be transparent," said John C. Manly, an Orange County lawyer representing dozens of plaintiffs. "Even if you assume that they really believe this privilege is true and necessary, which I don't, the First Amendment does not protect or shield criminal conduct in this context."
Lawyers for plaintiffs have said that while they are keeping an open mind about mediation, any settlements would have to provide an open airing of the facts with no room for confidentiality agreements, which have been common in the past.
The archdiocese has taken the same position in neighboring Ventura County, Calif., where the church has turned documents over to a judge but not to a grand jury, saying the documents contain just such privileged information. Four top aides to Cardinal Mahony have testified in those proceedings.
In Los Angeles County, where six former or retired priests have been charged with child molestation, District Attorney Steve Cooley has promised to push the church to surrender all files.
A lawyer representing several plaintiffs said mediation efforts had broken down over disclosure issues in Sacramento, where at least 15 civil cases have been filed since the legislation was passed.
"Right now we're in litigation and our attempts at mediation are called off," the lawyer, Joseph C. George, said. "I got the distinct impression they want to manage this crisis by essentially throwing money at the problem without the true picture emerging."
While the plaintiffs are seeking damages in the lawsuits, they say it is important to let the public know how they were abused, how the church allowed it to happen and to make sure it never happens again.
"If I go through litigation and get nothing, I can still go to bed at night and say I helped some other guys out," said Steven Sanchez, 42, who has started a support group for victims and has a sexual molestation suit pending against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "The bottom line is, I just want to be 13 again and run the course of my life again."
Mary Grant, the southwest regional director for the victims group Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests , said that while numerous victims were stepping forward as a result of the change in the law, many would not file lawsuits.
"Most survivors do not file lawsuits," Ms. Grant said. "but one of the things that I'm hearing from survivors is that it's giving them the support and the validation to take this step, if not to file a lawsuit, to break the silence about what they experienced."
For Sandy Graves, 49, the change in the statute is providing a second chance to take action against the church for the abuse she says began when she was 4 and became sexual molestation by the time she was 9.
Although the priest accused of the abuse, the late Adalbert J. Kowalczyk, was transferred after parents learned of the molestations and questioned their children, no other action was taken at the time.
"They just thought the best thing to do was forget about it," Ms. Graves said.
It was not until she was 38 and therapy led her to the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, that she considered legal action. By then, the priest was dead and the statute of limitations blocked her efforts to sue the church.
"Now I'm going to get that chance again," she said, "and maybe help some people here along the way."
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