15 States Make It Easier to Sue Church for Sex Abuse

NEW YORK (AP) — Fifteen states have revised their laws in the past two years extending or suspending statutes of limitation to allow child sex abuse claims stretching back decades, unleashing potentially thousands of new lawsuits against the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.

Here are some highlights of the new laws:

Eight states and the District of Columbia have established “lookback windows” allowing people to sue no matter how long ago the alleged abuse took place. They can file civil suits against their alleged abusers such as priests and the church or other institutions where they worked.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have extended or suspended statutes of limitations to allow child sex abuse claims stretching back decades.

NEW YORK — A one-year window allowing previously barred suits opened Aug. 14. After that, suits allowed until age 55, up from 23 before the law was passed.

NEW JERSEY — A two-year window opened Dec. 1. After that ends, suits allowed until age 55, up from 20.

CALIFORNIA — Three-year window opens Jan. 1, 2020. Treble damages if cover-up is proven. After window closes, suits allowed until age 40, up from 26.

ARIZONA — Nineteen-month window opened in June. After it closes, suits allowed until age 30, up from 20.

MONTANA — One-year window opened May 7. After that ends, suits allowed until age 27, up from 24.

HAWAII — A previous window for filing old claims was opened in 2012. It was reopened in 2018 and lasts until April 2020.

VERMONT — Eliminated age limits in May and window never expires.

NORTH CAROLINA — Two-year window opens Jan. 1, 2020. After that ends, suits allowed until age 28, up from 21.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — Two-year window opened in May. After that, suits allowed until age 40, up from 25.

Seven other states changed statutes of limitations so victims could file civil cases alleging abuse later in life. Many states also have discovery rules allowing alleged victims to sue even later if they can show they realized the impact of the abuse in recent years.

ALABAMA: Raised age limit to file to 25 from 21 this year.

RHODE ISLAND — Raised age limit this year to 53 from 25 for lawsuits against abuser and from 21 against institutions.

CONNECTICUT — Raised age limit to 51 from 48 in June.

TENNESSEE — Raised age limit to 33 from 19 in May.

TEXAS — Raised age limit to 48 from 33 this year.

MICHIGAN — Raised age limit to 28 from 19 in 2018.

PENNSYLVANIA — Raised age to 55 from 30 in November, but the law is not retroactive and so just for allegations of abuse in the future.

Key Points in Catholic Abuse Lawsuits
Here are key takeaways from new laws in 15 states that could clear the way for a deluge of lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church:

  • Many of the dozen-plus lawyers and clergy abuse watchdog groups interviewed by the AP expect at least 5,000 new cases, resulting in potential payouts that could surpass the $4 billion paid out since the clergy sex abuse came to light in the 1980s.
  • The legal onslaught will play out in some of the nation’s most populous Catholic strongholds. This summer, New York state ditched its one-year window, to allow sex abuse claims no matter how old, and already hundreds of lawsuits have been filed. A two-year window in New Jersey opens this week, then a three-year window in California opens in the new year that allows treble damages if the church tried to cover up the abuse.
  • Some lawyers believe payouts by juries will be bigger than ever because of a national reawakening over sex abuse, fueled by the #MeToo movement, the public shaming of accused celebrities and last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report that found 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children in that state. Since then, attorneys general in nearly 20 states have launched investigations of their own.
  •  The church hopes victims turn to compensation funds set up by dioceses offering faster, but typically much lower payments than if they took their claims to court. To soften the financial hit, more dioceses are likely to file for bankruptcy. Less than a month after New York’s window took effect, the upstate Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy, the 20th U.S. diocese or religious order to do so.
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