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

Old English design elements can be seen in the sign of the Summerland Farm and Garden Centre in 1993. The guidelines are no longer in place, but some downtown businesses still show aspects of the days when Summerland had a theme in place. This photo was taken by Summerland photographer Dan Dorotich. (Photo courtesy of the Summerland Museum)
Summerland’s Old English theme has been abandoned

From the 1980s until the early 2000s, Summerland had design guidelines in its downtown

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
110 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Provincial health officers announced 1,005 new cases throughout B.C.

Residents of Rural Keremeos, Olalla and Hedley are being asked to give feedback for the first Official Community Plan for the area. (Brennan Phillips - Keremeos Review)
Survey on RDOS Area G OCP open until April 30

The area’s first Official Community Plan is in the early stages of development

Nominally 'flushable' wipes caused one of Keremeos lift stations to shut down, damaging the pump inside. The Village is asking residents not to flush anything that isn't human waste. (Black Press)
Keremeos reminds residents not to flush wipes after pump damaged

‘Flushable’ wipes caused the pump to seize up and burn out

Black Crow Cannabis is just one of Vernon's many pot shops now open in town. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Kelowna has highest cannabis fees in Okanagan

Vernon’s 14 stores pay second highest business licence fees

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Black Press Media Weekly Roundup: Top headlines this week

Here’s a quick roundup of the stories that made headlines across the Okanagan, from April 11 to 16

Valen a student of Coldstream Elementary writes advice for adults amid a pandemic.
‘We can get rid of COVID together’: B.C. kids share heartwarming advice

Elementary students share their wisdom to adults in unprecedented times

Mervin Mascarenhas giving one of his pens to Honorary JP-MP. Premier David Burt of Bermuda. (Image: Mervin Mascarenhas)
Kelowna man who made $90K ‘Space Pen’ recognized by dignitaries, sheikhs

Mervin Mascarenhas is the first Canadian to grace the cover of Millennium Millionaire Magazine

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. health minister says delay in Moderna vaccine ‘disappointing’

‘The sooner we get vaccines in people’s arms the better, and inconsistency in delivery is a consistent problem. This is simply a reality and not an issue of blame,’ Adrian Dix said Friday

(Police handout/Kamloops RCMP)
B.C. man dies in custody awaiting trial for Valentine’s Day robbery, kidnapping spree

Robert James Rennie, who was on the Kamloops RCMP’s most wanted list, passed away at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Coquitlam

Photos of Vancouver Canucks players are pictured outside the closed box office of Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver Thursday, April 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canucks games against Leafs postponed as team returns from COVID-19

The team has had 11 games postponed since an outbreak late last month

Penticton bylaw officers tore down a “pretty significantly sized” homeless camp underneath the bridge near Riverside Drive Friday, April 16 morning. (Brennan Phillips - Western News)
Penticton bylaw tears down ‘significantly sized’ homeless camp under bridge

Many residents had made complaints about the camp before it was torn down

Danita Bilozaze and her daughter Dani in Comox. Photo by Karen McKinnon
Island woman makes historic name change for truth and reconciliation

Becomes first person in Canada to be issued new passport under the TRC Calls to Action

Most Read