California Catholic dioceses ask Supreme Court to hear statute of limitations extension case

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles Credit David Castor Public Domain CNA The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. | David Castor/public domain.

California Catholic bishops are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a case challenging the state for permitting victims of childhood sexual abuse to file claims again, after the timeframe for them to pursue legal action has expired twice.

Nine California Catholic dioceses and archdioceses filed a petition for writ of certiorari, or a petition to review a lower court’s decision, in the case — Roman Catholic Bishop of Oakland v. Superior Court of California for Los Angeles — on April 15. 

The petition outlines their two main concerns: That recent California legislation allows claimants to come forward after the timeframe to do so has expired twice, and it allows claims that impose new punishment not considered the last time.

“This time, defendants' past conduct is subject not only to claims for compensatory and punitive damages that were previously time-barred twice over, but also to additional penalties (in the form of ‘treble’ damages) based on a newly defined category of ‘cover up’ activity,” the petition reads.

The petition represents nine California Catholic dioceses and archdioceses: Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles; Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange; Bishop Joseph V. Brennen of Fresno; Bishop Daniel E. Garcia of Monterey; Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland; Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento; Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco; Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose; and Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Santa Rosa.

The nine offices argue that they have already dealt with claims, at tremendous cost, and that California’s action changes law retroactively and, thus, is unconstitutional. They add that the move represents a bigger problem: seven states have introduced “double-revival” laws, after reviving abuse claims once. 

The case begins 20 years ago, in 2002, when the state of California revived all childhood sexual-abuse claims by eliminating the statute of limitations, or the timeframe to sue. The state then offered victims one year to sue. 

During that time, the Catholic Church in California faced more than 1,000 lawsuits from as far back as the 1930s and “reached a series of settlements that paid out over a billion dollars without regard to the validity of any individual claim,” the petition reads.

After the one-year window closed, the state attempted to revive lapsed claims three more times, but former Governor Jerry Brown, a Catholic, vetoed each bill. That changed in 2019, when current Governor Gavin Newsom, who also is Catholic, signed legislation that extended the previous time limit and suspended the statute of limitations for a second time — this time, for three years. 

The dioceses say that reviving claims and retroactively imposing new damages is unconstitutional under the ex post facto clause, which prohibits the enforcement of laws retroactively, and the due process clause, which they say forbids retroactively creating liability. 

The petition argues that “review is critical now, before the Catholic Church in the largest State in the union is forced to litigate hundreds or thousands of cases seeking potentially billions of dollars in retroactive punitive damages under an unconstitutional double-revival regime.”

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