High court applies statute of limitations in California abuse suit

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

.- Oakland's Catholic diocese cannot be sued over alleged abuse cases falling outside the legal time limit and a subsequent one-year extension, the California Supreme Court ruled on March 29.

“We believe the court made the right decision today and are gratified at the justices’ conclusion that the legislature meant what it said when lawmakers enacted a one-year exemption to the statute of limitations,” said Bishop Gerald E. Wilkerson, president of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops.

“Nothing in the court’s ruling, however, changes the fact that the protection of young people has been, and remains, our top priority,” said Bishop Wilkerson, who promised that California dioceses “will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to keep children safe.”

Thursday's ruling confirmed that six brothers of the Quarry family could not sue the Oakland diocese over the psychological effects of sexual abuse they say occurred in the early 1970s. The accused priest, Father Donald Broderson, was forced to leave the priesthood in the 1990s, and died in 2010.

During 2003, California legislators opened a one-year “window” allowing alleged victims of sexual abuse to sue for damages in cases that would otherwise have been regarded as too old to pursue in court.

The Quarry brothers brought their suit in 2007. It was only during that year, they said, that they realized the extent of the psychological damage caused by the alleged abuse.

On Thursday, however, the state's high court ruled 5-2 that the statute of limitations could not be suspended again on this basis.

“We are unreservedly sympathetic to the plight of persons who were subjected to childhood sexual abuse,” wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in her opinion.

But she held that the existing time frame for lawsuits, along with the temporary 2003 extension, gave victims “considerable time following the abuse in which to come to maturity, or even middle age, and discover the claim.”

Statutes of limitations serve to protect defendants' rights in “stale” cases – where a lack of remaining evidence, and problems with witnesses' recollection of details, make it difficult to establish facts and mount a defense.

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye noted that the legislature's one-year window for old claims was an attempt at “striking a balance between the strong interest of victims,” and the “burden on third party defendants … of being required to defend stale claims.”


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