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)

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

Alyssa Gerwing, executive director of the Sidney Museum and Archives, gets into the Halloween spirit with a lit-up jack-o-lantern. With Treat Street cancelled, the Sidney Business Improvement Area Society has organized a series of other events and activities under the heading of Halloween Spooktacular. (Wolfgang Depner/News Staff)
Sidney serves up ghoulish spills and thrills during Halloween

A virtual Halloween treasure hunt and scary drive-in movies among tricks and treats

Samantha Lenz, resort manager for Oceanside RV Resort, says she continues to turn people away, who are looking for a permanent spot to winter on the Saanich Peninsula. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Tourism operators hope Canadian Snowbirds flock to B.C.

Provincial tourism industry hopes to compensate ‘monumental financial losses and hardship’

The Capital Regional District is considering adding another dollar a year to the parkland acquisition fund fee for homeowners. (Black Press Media file photo)
One dollar or two? Greater Victoria parks acquisition fee hike spurs debate

$2 a year too steep, CRD committee recommends $1 a year increase per household

Patrol officers from VicPD’s Esquimalt division responded to a call about hateful graffiti in Macaulay Park Wednesday evening. (Black Press Media file photo)
Anti-Semitic, hate-based graffiti found in Esquimalt park

Police seek suspects after fresh hate-based graffiti found Wednesday evening

Vancouver Island-based Wilson’s Transportation has expanded to fill some of the routes left unserviced by Greyhound as of Nov. 1, 2018. (Black Press files)
B.C. bus companies say they need help to survive COVID-19

Like airlines, motor coaches have lost most of their revenue

A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books as a sticker on the floor indicates a one-way direction of travel between shelves of books at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, after it and four other branches reopened with limited services, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
B.C. reports 234 new COVID cases, 1 death of senior who had attended small birthday party

Roughly 5,700 people are isolating due to being exposed to a confirmed case

MNP senior economist Susan Mowbray presents the State of the Island Economic Report on Thursday night to conclude the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance’s virtual summit. (VIEA image)
Not-so-rosy State of the Island report caps off virtual summit

Vancouver Island Economic Alliance’s summit took place online Oct. 27-29

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Allentown, Pa. on Oct. 26. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
POLL: How closely are you following the U.S. presidential election?

It may feel like it’s been going on forever but the U.S.… Continue reading

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

A can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale is shown in Toronto on Thursday Oct. 29, 2020. The maker of Canada Dry Ginger Ale has agreed to pay over $200,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit launched by a B.C. man who alleged he was misled by marketing suggesting the soda had medicinal benefits. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joseph O’Connal
B.C. man’s lawsuit over marketing of Canada Dry ginger ale settled for $200K

Soda’s maker, Canada Dry Mott’s Inc., denied the allegations and any liability

A deer was spotted in October 2020 in Prince Rupert, B.C., with a bright pink yoga ball stuck in its antlers. (Kayla Vickers/Chronicles Of Hammy The Deer Official Page)
Hammy 2.0? Prince Rupert deer spotted with bright pink yoga ball stuck in antlers

The BC Conservation Officer Service is aware of the deer roaming around the city

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna Mountie hit with 2nd lawsuit in 2 months for alleged assault

Const. Julius Prommer is accused of breaking a woman’s knee during while responding to a noise complaint

Hirdeypal Batth, 24, has been charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement in relation to an incident in August 2020. (VPD handout)
Man, 24, charged with sex assault after allegedly posing as Uber driver in Vancouver

Investigators believe there could be more victims outside of the Vancouver area

Pilot Kevin Maher participated in a flyover of a ceremony at the Cobble Hill cenotaph on Oct. 22 in a 1940 North American (Noorduyn) Harvard aircraft. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Cobble Hill remembers lost military members with ceremony, flyover

Annual event commemorates those who died in non-combat roles

Most Read