Legal reckoning: New sexual abuse lawsuits could cost Catholic church more than $4B

Lawyers, watchdog groups expect at least 5,000 new cases just in New York, New Jersey and California

In this Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, photo, attorney Adam Slater takes a phone call on a patio outside his high-rise Manhattan office overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

In this Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, photo, attorney Adam Slater takes a phone call on a patio outside his high-rise Manhattan office overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

A wave of new laws in 15 states that allow people to make claims of sexual abuse going back decades could bring a deluge of lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church that could surpass anything seen so far in its clergy abuse crisis.

Associated Press reporting found it could result in thousands of new cases against the church and more than $4 billion in payouts.

It’s a financial reckoning playing out in such populous Catholic strongholds as New York, California and New Jersey, among the eight states that go the furthest with “lookback windows” that allow sex abuse claims no matter how old.

That has lawyers fighting for clients with TV ads and billboards asking, “Were you abused by the church?” And Catholic dioceses are considering bankruptcy, victim compensation funds and even tapping valuable real estate to stay afloat.

“It’s like a whole new beginning for me,” said 71-year-old Nancy Holling-Lonnecker of San Diego, who plans to take advantage of an upcoming three-year window for such suits in California. Her claim dates back to the 1950s, when she says a priest repeatedly raped her in a confession booth beginning when she was 7 years old.

“The survivors coming forward now have been holding on to this horrific experience all of their lives,” she said. “They bottled up those emotions all of these years because there was no place to take it.”

RELATED: B.C.’s largest catholic archdiocese names 9 clergymen in sex abuse report

AP interviews with more than a dozen lawyers and clergy abuse watchdog groups offered a wide range of estimates but many said they expected at least 5,000 new cases against the church in New York, New Jersey and California alone, resulting in potential payouts that could surpass the $4 billion paid out since the clergy sex abuse first came to light in the 1980s.

Some lawyers believe payouts could be heavily influenced by the recent reawakening over sexual abuse fueled by the #MeToo movement, the public shaming of accused celebrities and the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report last year that found 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children in that state over seven decades.

“The general public is more disgusted than ever with the clergy sex abuse and the coverup, and that will be reflected in jury verdicts,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who was at the centre of numerous lawsuits against the church in that city and was portrayed in the movie “Spotlight.”

Since the 15 states changed their laws within the past two years, the onslaught of lawsuits is coming in waves.

This summer, when New York state opened its one-year window allowing sexual abuse suits with no statute of limitations, more than 400 cases against the church and other institutions were filed on the first day alone. That number is now up to more than 1,000, with most against the church. New Jersey’s two-year window opens this week and California’s three-year window begins in the new year, with a new provision that allows plaintiffs to collect triple damages if a demonstrable coverup can be shown. Arizona, Montana and Vermont opened ones earlier this year.

Already, longtime clergy abuse lawyer Michael Pfau in Seattle says he’s signed up about 800 clients in New York, New Jersey and California. Boston’s Garabedian says he expects to file 225 in New York, plus at least 200 in a half-dozen other states. Another veteran abuse litigator, James Marsh, says he’s collected more than 200 clients in New York alone.

“A trickle becomes a stream becomes a flood,” Marsh said.

Church leaders who had for years lobbied statehouses against loosening statute-of-limitations laws say this is exactly the kind of feeding frenzy they were worried about. And some have bemoaned the difficulty of trying to counter accusations of abuse that happened so long ago that most witnesses have scattered and many of the accused priests are long dead.

“Dead people can’t defend themselves,” said Mark Chopko, former general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

READ MORE: Searing testimony heard at Vatican sex abuse summit

The church’s response weighs heavily on compensation funds and bankruptcy.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan set up the first fund in 2016, pitching it as a way to compensate victims without walloping the church and forcing it to cut programs. It has since paid more than $67 million to 338 alleged victims, an average $200,000 each.

The idea has caught on in other states. All five dioceses in New Jersey and three in Colorado opened one, as did seven dioceses in Pennsylvania and six in California, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest in the U.S.

More drastic and increasingly more common is the bankruptcy option. Less than a month after New York’s one-year lookback window took effect, the upstate Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy, the 20th diocese or religious order in the country to do so.

When a diocese files for bankruptcy, lawsuits by alleged abuse survivors are suspended and payments to them and others owed money are frozen while a federal judge decides how much to pay everyone and still leave enough for the diocese to continue to operate. It’s orderly and victims avoid costly and lengthy court cases, but they often get less than they would if they were successful in a trial.

Bankruptcy can also leave abuse survivors with a sense of justice denied because the church never has to face discovery by plaintiff lawyers and forced to hand over documents, possibly implicating higher-ups who hid the abuse.

For many of his clients, New York lawyer Adam Slater said, that step is crucial.

“They want to see how the church allowed them to be abused, how they ruined their lives,” he said. “It’s a different process in bankruptcy — you don’t get discovery and you don’t get it in compensation programs. The truth never comes to light.”

ALSO READ: Pope demands sex abuse claims be reported in Vatican City

The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

This Dec. 2, 2020, file photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows vials of the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)
Interior Health notes 80 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

108 people in the region have died from the virus

Selkirk College’s Tenth St. Campus in Nelson is among the locations where Interior Health will deliver the COVID-19 vaccine within the West Kootenay. Photo: Selkirk College
West Kootenay vaccine locations announced

Interior Health has released a list of places to receive the COVID-19 vaccine

Last week warming temperatures were a concern for Avalanche Canada forecasters, and those trends likely contributed to an avalanche that killed a West Kootenay snowmobiler on Thursday, March 4. Jen Coulter file photo.
Warming trend contributed to Kaslo fatality: Avalanche Canada

Concern for persistent layers has reduced since then

A West Kootenay man died in an avalanche on March 4 while snowmobiling near Mount Payne, which is indicted by the red flag. Illustration: Google Maps
Father of 3 dead after avalanche in West Kootenay

The man was snowmobiling with a group when incident occurred March 4

baseball back in Butler
Play Ball! Butler Park opening for league play

City council gives approval and guidance for Trail Youth Baseball season

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Montreal Canadiens right wing Paul Byron (41) fights for control of the puck with Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes (43) during first period NHL action in Vancouver, Monday, March 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Captain Clutch: Horvat nets shootout winner as Canucks edge Habs 2-1

Vancouver, Montreal tangle again on Wednesday

A special committee has been appointed to look at reforming B.C.’s police act and is inviting the public to make submissions until April 30, 2021. (Black Press media file)
Have thoughts on B.C.’s review of the provincial Police Act?

Submissions will be accepted until April 30

Cottonwoods Care Home in Kelowna. (Google Maps)
New COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna care home includes fully vaccinated seniors: Henry

Two staff and 10 residents tested positive at Cottonwoods Care Centre

Excerpts from a conversation between Bria Fisher and the fake truLOCAL job. Fisher had signed a job agreement and was prepared to start work for what she thought was truLOCAL before she learned it was a scam. (Contributed)
B.C. woman warning others after losing $3,000 in job scam

Bria Fisher was hired by what she thought was a Canadian company, only to be out thousands

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix provide a regular update on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, March 2, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 cases: 545 Saturday, 532 Sunday, 385 Monday

Focus on Prince Rupert, Lower Mainland large workplaces

Rising accident rates and payout costs have contributed to billion-dollar deficits at ICBC. (Comox Valley Record)
B.C. appealing decision keeping ICBC injury cases in court

David Eby vows to ‘clip wings’ of personal injury lawyers

(Black Press Media files)
Hosts charged, attendees facing COVID fines after Vancouver police bust party at condo

Police had previously received 10 complaints about that condo

Most Read