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Roman Catholic Church Still Paying for Priest Abuse

Mar 17, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Roman Catholic Church continues to pay out large settlements to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of wayward priests.  According to the Associated Press, an annual report recently released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the Church has paid out more than $2.6 billion in abuse settlements and expenses since 1950.

According to the report, the Los Angeles Diocese has spent the largest on settlements so far.  In 2007, the Diocese began paying out a $660 million settlement to about 500 people, the Associated Press said. It was the largest such deal by a U.S. diocese so far.

Abuse claims are still being made, according to the report.  Last year, the number of claims rose by 16 percent, the Associated Press said.  Most of the cases involve adults who were abused decades ago.

The fact that so many victims wait decades to report their abuse at the hands of priests has led many states to change their statutes of limitations that set a deadline for filing child sexual abuse lawsuits.  New York State is currently considering such a law.  

Advocates for the proposed New York law - known as the Child Victims Act - argue  that  guilt, shame and fear of the emotional toll on family members prevent many from reporting sexual abuse until well into adulthood.  They also point to evidence that some in the Church hierarchy covered up abuse allegations, moved guilty priests from parish to parish rather than remove them from ministry, and took actions that made it difficult for victims to come forward.

Currently, the deadline in New York for filing a child sexual abuse  lawsuit is 5 years after a victim turns 18. According to The New York Times, the Child Victims Act would give victims a one-year exemption from the statute of limitations. Regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred, they could file suit in civil court. At the year’s end, time limits on such claims would be restored, but with a wider window: Instead of a five-year period after turning 18, victims would have 10 years to file claims, the Times said

As it is written now, the Child Victims Act would only apply to lawsuits filed against private institutions and individuals. This is mainly because of legal protections granted under existing state law to all public workers and agencies. According to the Times, critics of the act have argued that this unfairly discriminates against religious institutions and private schools. But proponents of the Child Victims Act have said that the disparity could be addressed in future legislation.

The New York Child Victims Act has been proposed before, but never passed. According to The New York Times, Republicans in the state Senate had always been able to block the bill. But, the Democrats now control the legislature. What’s more, the Times said Gov. David Paterson is a proponent of the act, and would likely sign it if it is passed.


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