Flood of new abuse cases headed to California courts
By ARTHUR JONES
Lawyers outnumbered media representatives 19 to 11 in Los Angeles Superior Court Room 322 Jan. 8 as all waited for the next stage in the Los Angeles Catholic archdioceses bid to have a new raft of sex abuse suits settled through mediation.
What has happened is this: Effective Jan. 1, California legislation lifted for a calendar year the statute of limitations on suing employers of known child molesters. Consequently, plaintiffs attorneys are filing new suits against Catholic dioceses, suits that -- before the statute was lifted -- were invalid on grounds that too much time had elapsed since the alleged offense.
With possibly 300 new and existing cases to contend with, Catholic dioceses and California courts share similar problems: Both will be swamped with additional caseloads.
On Dec. 24, toward the end of a more than four-hour meeting with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman, the judge invited the lawyers to discuss mediation. The judge also issued a gag order on public discussion of the mediation proposal.
In the Los Angeles archdiocese and nearby Orange, Calif., diocese there are more than 100 cases for potential mediation. If mediation goes ahead, church and victims would try to reach out-of-court settlements in a 90-day period. No new cases would be filed during this standstill period, and no action would be taken on cases already pending.
Should the mediation go through, there is little likelihood the Los Angeles archdiocese would fight to get the 12-month statute of limitations waiver law overturned, a tactic said to be under consideration. (Though the state legislature says the provision applies to all employers, the waiver is widely regarded in Catholic circles as being aimed at Catholic dioceses.)
A second development in these cases is a move to coordinate them all before a single court in the interests of judicial economy. If there were 20 different cases dealt with in 20 different California courts, there could be 20 different decisions on the same legal issue. That would end up in the state Supreme Courts lap because the Supreme Courts court of appeals would have to sort out the 20 different legal opinions.
These civil cases -- regarding continued sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clerics made possible by alleged lax supervision on the part of church authorities -- are regarded as similar enough in kind to warrant coordination. With all the cases coming before the same court, the legal rulings would be from a single source.
What distinguishes a coordination from a class action suit is that in a class action suit, all claims are evaluated together in one court hearing. That would not be the case in coordination. After two hours of meeting separately and jointly with church attorneys and plaintiffs attorneys, Lichtman told the church to produce personnel records on more than 100 priests accused of molestation, and ordered plaintiffs attorneys to make available names and details of those making new complaints.
The judge said confidentiality on both sides was a key to mediation. Plaintiffs lawyers later said they intended to push, as a condition of settlement, that church documents be unsealed.
This second step in the mediation bid does not mean mediation has been agreed upon, or will necessarily work in all cases. Lichtman has scheduled the next hearing for Feb. 25.
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003