- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Californians are rushing to file hundreds of lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church before the year-end deadline established under a state law that opened a window for old molestation claims.

Attorneys handling the cases predict that up to 750 people will sue statewide and that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest, will pay a colossal sum to settle as many as 500 cases.

Ray Boucher, who represents 300 plaintiffs, said such a settlement could surpass the record $85 million the Archdiocese of Boston is paying.

“I think the settlements in other states will pale in comparison to what should happen in Southern California,” he said. “If you just do the math, you’re talking about 25 to 30 years of trials, which will never happen.”

An informal Associated Press survey of attorneys and church officials found that at least 670 persons had filed cases or were about to file as of the middle of this month.

The flood of litigation is the result of a California law that took effect Jan. 1, lifting for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits. Previously, accusers could file civil lawsuits only until their 26th birthday, or within three years of discovering that they had emotional problems linked to the molestation.

Those accusing priests of abuse were frustrated in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a separate California law that had erased the statute of limitations for molestation in criminal cases. That ruling led the state to overturn convictions or drop charges against hundreds of suspects.

Timothy McDonnell, 44, said he had tried to sue the Los Angeles Archdiocese and his childhood church more than 10 years ago, but had been thwarted by the statute of limitations. Mr. McDonnell, who said he had been molested repeatedly by a priest when he was an altar boy in the early 1970s, sees the new law as a second chance at justice.

“The statue of limitations is what the Catholic Church has been hiding behind for many, many years,” he said.

Mr. McDonnell said he has suffered severe abuse-related depression.

Attorneys for the church say it is unfair to dust off accusations after the passage of so much time — in one case, more than 70 years.

“It’s always an impossible task to try to defend decades-old cases because you lose the memories, you lose the witnesses. There’s a reason why they have statutes of limitation in the first place,” said Don Steier, who represents more than 20 accused priests from the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said the law had made the church vulnerable to “some claims that are demonstrably false.”

The archdiocese and the neighboring Diocese of Orange, which faces about 50 claims, are trying to work out a settlement.

But the archdiocese has refused to turn over the personnel files of priests suspected of child molestation. The files contain reports by people who accused priests of abuse, psychological evaluations of the priests and transcripts of their interviews by bishops.

The church says releasing the files would violate priest-penitent confidentiality, freedom of religion and the privacy given to medical records.

The documents remain sealed and are the focus of a legal battle, elements of which could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

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