The stream of civil suits against the Catholic Church over sexual abuse of minors by priests may soon turn into a flood as states take steps to extend the statutes of limitations on such cases.
California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania recently have passed laws giving adult victims more time to pursue lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse. Seven states are considering similar steps: Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
The strategies vary. Some states set a specific time limit from the date of abuse; others extend the period beyond the victim’s 18th or 21st birthday. In most, the clock starts ticking once the victim realizes that what happened was child sexual abuse.
States also are expanding the statute of limitations on criminal action against child abusers. But those laws already extend well beyond the limits for civil cases; 17 states have no statute of limitations on criminal cases. Limit
Phyllis Goldfarb, a Boston College law professor, says the new laws and the public focus on the scandal are likely to add hundreds of cases to court dockets across the country.
”The nature of the problem often puts pressure on lawmakers to respond,” she says. ”I imagine there will be a proliferation of claims and the courts are going to have to deal with it.”
The new California legislation is the most sweeping. Plaintiffs can file suit in 2003 no matter when the incident happened if church officials knew about a priest’s sexual misconduct and failed to take ”reasonable steps” to prevent future acts.
Connecticut legislators passed a bill this spring that doubles the civil statute of limitations, allowing victims up to age 48 to bring suits. And on June 28, Pennsylvania extended the age that a victim can sue from 20 to 30.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who first proposed a similar law in 1992, says victims often aren’t ready to acknowledge their abuse until their late 20s but ”could be in the position to bring action by age 30.”
While an attempt to extend Minnesota’s six-year statute of limitations failed, a ruling in June by the state’s Supreme Court gave victims until they turn 24 to file lawsuits. The court said that because ”a reasonable child is incapable of knowing that he or she has been sexually abused,” the six-year limit shouldn’t begin until the child turns 18.
Some question whether the changes may go too far. Patrick Schiltz, associate dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, says many cases brought as a result of the laws may punish the wrong people.
”In some of these cases, the bishop who was responsible is dead and the people who have to pay weren’t even born. There has to be some point where it is too late to bring a case.”