Six brothers who allege they were sexually abused by an Oakland, Calif., priest over three decades ago, asked the California Supreme Court Thursday for permission to sue the priest’s diocese, counting on a narrow legal loophole to work in their favor.
The men allege that the Oakland Diocese knew the priest, who passed away in 2010, might have been a child molester.
Some fear that if the justices side with the plaintiffs, the state could get inundated with clergy abuse lawsuits concerning years-old cases that would normally fall outside of the statute of limitations.
California allows claims of sexual abuse to be filed at any time before the victim’s 26th birthday, and provides a vehicle for later claims in some circumstances, Devin Storey, of the Zalkin Law Firm, which specializes in clergy sex abuse cases, told The Christian Post.
The brothers are currently in their 40s and 50s. They allege they were molested in the 1970s, but did not link it to their ongoing distress until 2006. Although way past their 26th birthday, the brothers might still have a chance to file their claims, Storey told CP.
In 1998, the legislature provided a direct statute of limitations for claims against non-abuser defendants, such as the employer of the abuser (the diocese, in this case) with a cap on the alleged victim’s age at 26 years old. But in 2002, the legislature changed that requirement, adding that if the plaintiff could prove that the abuser’s employer knew or had reasons to know that the molester had abused someone else in the past and failed to take appropriate steps to prevent future abuse, the limitation of 26 years of age no longer applies, Storey said.
The priest in question, Donald Broderson, was forced to retire amid abuse allegations in 1993, according to The Associated Press. Broderson reportedly admitted that he had had sexual relationships with four sets of underage brothers during the 1970s, including at least two of the brothers in question, in 2005. Broderson also admitted fondling other children, including a little girl, the news agency reported.
The Oakland Diocese reportedly maintains that the men are precluded from suing now because they did not do so during a one-year window for outdated cases that California opened in 2003.
Storey is skeptical that the case, if accepted by the California Supreme Court, will evoke an avalanche of similar lawsuits.
"I don’t believe that there would be a rush of these cases," because this model only allows cases to move forward in very specific circumstances, he said. The plaintiff has to be able to demonstrate that the defender had the knowledge of abuse.
The court has 90 days to make a decision.
Catholic dioceses and religious orders in California already reportedly have paid more than $1.1 billion since 2006 to settle child abuse lawsuits filed since the church clergy scandal erupted a decade ago.
In the context of the national (and global) recent revelations of sexual misbehavior in church institutions, many states legislatures have looked more closely at laws that allow victims to report abuse, especially the statutes of limitations.
Recently, a bill that would open a similar one-year window for filing in old cases of sexual abuse was introduced in New York, sparking protests from local Catholic Church authorities.
According to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a majority of sexual abuse cases involving minors often become outdated due to the victim taking years to realize the gravity of the incident psychologically. Often, victims are also too scared or too embarrassed to come forward.