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Californians filing molestation suits before year-end deadline

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Californians are rushing to file hundreds of lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church before the year-end deadline established under a state law that opened a window for old molestation claims.

Attorneys handling the cases predict that up to 750 people will sue statewide and that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, will pay a colossal sum to settle as many as 500 cases.

Ray Boucher, who represents 300 plaintiffs, said such a settlement could surpass the record-breaking $85 million the Archdiocese of Boston is paying.

"I think the settlements in other states will pale in comparison to what should happen in Southern California," he said. "If you just do the math, you're talking about 25 to 30 years of trials, which will never happen."

An informal survey by The Associated Press of attorneys and church officials found that at least 670 plaintiffs had filed cases or were about to file as of mid-December.

The flood of litigation is the result of a California law that took effect Jan. 1, 2003, lifting for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits. Previously, alleged victims could sue only until their 26th birthday, or within three years of discovering they had emotional problems linked to the molestation.

Those accusing priests of abuse were further frustrated in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that erased the statute of limitations for molestation in criminal cases. That ruling led the state to overturn convictions or drop charges against hundreds of suspects.

Timothy McDonnell, 44, said he tried to sue the Los Angeles Archdiocese and his childhood church more than 10 years ago but was thwarted by the statute of limitations. McDonnell, who said he was molested repeatedly by a priest when he was an altar boy in the early 1970s, sees the law as a second chance at justice.

"The statue of limitations is what the Catholic church has been hiding behind for many, many years," he said. McDonnell said he has suffered severe depression because of abuse.

Attorneys for the church say it unfair to dust off allegations after the passage of so much time -- in one case, more than 70 years.

"It's always an impossible task to try to defend decades-old cases because you lose the memories, you lose the witnesses. There's a reason why they have statutes of limitation in the first place," said Don Steier, who represents more than 20 accused priests from the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said the law had made the church vulnerable to "some claims that are demonstrably false."

Both the archdiocese and the neighboring Diocese of Orange, which faces about 50 claims, are trying to work out a settlement.

But the archdiocese has refused to turn over the personnel files of priests suspected of child molestation. The files contain reports by people claiming abuse, psychological evaluations of the priests and transcripts of their interviews by bishops.

Similar files from the Boston Archdiocese, made public by court order in 2002, proved explosive. They revealed the church had protected pedophile priests. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned last December as archbishop, and the archdiocese is selling or mortgaging property to pay the huge settlement.

"We feel that if we can force disclosure of the corresponding documents from the various dioceses in California, and particularly in Los Angeles, the result will be much the same," said Laurence Drivon, a lawyer who represents 350 plaintiffs.

The church says releasing the files would violate priest-penitent confidentiality, freedom of religion and the privacy given to medical records.

For now, the documents remain under seal and are the focus of a legal battle, elements of which could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Los Angeles District Attorney is also trying to get the files to see if they contain evidence for current or new criminal cases.

Tamberg said if the archdiocese cannot reach a settlement, it may challenge the constitutionality of extending the statute of limitations.

But that would be "a difficult argument to make," said Stephen Yeazell, a professor at UCLA School of Law and an expert in civil litigation. "We have a whole series of protections that apply to criminal cases that don't apply to civil cases."

Erin Brady, 44, said the priest who molested her for three years in Southern California still heads a parish in the northern part of the state, even though she repeatedly warned the church about him years ago.

Brady, a teacher, said she did not want to sue at first, "but looking at the protection of children, if this is the only way I can do it, then I have to do it."

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On the Net:

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org


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