Near the end of last year, fifteen states (over 24 months) enacted new rules extending the statute of limitations regarding the filing of claims of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic Church clergy members. These extensions to the existing statute of limitation laws has allowed victims of sexual abuse in those states that have revised the law, to have a voice and an opportunity to file claims of church abuse by priests for events that could stretch back decades.
Some states have chosen to suspend the statute of limitations for these matters. Of the fifteen states that have made these legal revisions to the statute of limitation laws, California, New Jersey, and New York have re-opened their look-back windows the furthest – allowing sex abuse claims despite the age of the claim! This unilateral move by so many states is a first as it lifts restrictions that initially precluded individuals from filing childhood sexual abuse claims by a specific age – typically in one’s early 20s.
Many survivors brave enough to come forward with this new opportunity have been living with the aftermath of horrific, life-changing experiences for decades, without a viable legal option to seek justice. Attorneys in California, New Jersey, and New York anticipate more than 5,000 new cases to be filed against the church – in these states alone. The first day New York state re-opened the one-year window (with no statute of limitations) for sexual abuse claims more than 400 cases were initiated.
Payouts for these states alone could reach the billions of dollars mark if these cases are cases reach a courtroom, and are not settled before a jury trial. The reality is no one can be entirely sure as to the exact payouts; however, the #MeToo movement that effectively public shamed celebrities accused of sexual abuse may have a direct impact on jury verdicts.
Given the reality of the re-opened windows for victims of church abuse, the Catholic Church in some states have set up compensation funds to negotiate with victims before these claims of sexual abuse ever reached a courtroom.
Only weeks after New York modified the existing statute of limitation laws, a diocese in Rochester New York became the twentieth diocese (or religious order) in the country to file for protection through bankruptcy. When bankruptcy is filed, outstanding lawsuits are temporarily suspended as a federal adjudicator determines how to reimburse victims and creditors, while trying to keep the church afloat and operational.
Independent of monetary compensation, a diocese that goes bankrupt also denies sexual abuse victims a sense of justice, a key component for healing and psychological closure. And therein, lies the true tragedy.