Several states in recent years have passed laws extending the statute of limitations in cases of sexual offenses against children, a move legal experts say will likely spark a new round of lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
Lobbyists for the church fought to block the bills and were successful for many years. But heightened public awareness of sexual assault and pressure from voters broke the logjam, and the laws have passed in New York, New Jersey and other states. The Associated Press (AP) reported last month that within the past two years, 15 states have extended the statute of limitations for allegations of sexual abuse of children or done away with them entirely.
“Associated Press reporting found the deluge of suits could surpass anything the nation’s clergy sexual abuse crisis has seen before, with potentially more than 5,000 new cases and payouts topping $4 billion,” noted the AP.
AP reporters Bernard Condon and Jim Mustian interviewed several attorneys and groups that speak out against clergy abuse. The two reported that there could be thousands of new cases against the church in New York, New Jersey and California alone.
Lawyers say there’s been a sea change in attitudes, and that growing numbers of people want to see the church held accountable.
“The general public is more disgusted than ever with the clergy sex abuse and the cover-up, and that will be reflected in jury verdicts,” Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has filed lawsuits against the church, told the AP.
Another attorney who has successfully sued the church on behalf of victims, Paul Mones of Los Angeles, remarked, “The zeitgeist is completely unfavorable to the Catholic Church.”
Some of the allegations stretch back to the 1940s. In many cases, church officials were aware that priests were abusing children but took no action to turn them over to civil authorities. Instead, such priests were often reassigned to different parts of the country, where they committed new offenses.
Although elected officials in some states and local jurisdictions had a habit of deferring to the church’s leadership when cases of abuse were alleged, that too is changing. In 2016, the attorney general of Pennsylvania released a grand jury report about sexual abuse of children by priests in that state. Follow-up reports noted that 300 priests were accused of abusing more than 1,000 children over a period of 70 years.