SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California’s highest court is hearing a precedent-setting case Thursday that could expose California’s Roman Catholic dioceses to another round of clergy abuse lawsuits.
The case being argued before the California Supreme Court involves six brothers in their 40s and 50s who allege they were molested by an Oakland priest during the 1970s and did not make the link between their psychological problems as adults and what happened to them as children until 2006. The priest, Donald Broderson, was forced to retire amid abuse allegations in 1993 and died in 2010.
Statutes of limitations generally prevent plaintiffs from bringing civil complaints based on long-ago events, but the California Legislature has expanded the time limits for child abuse lawsuits several times to make it easier for victims of childhood abuse to seek damages. Most recently, it opened a one-year window in 2003 for people to sue churches, schools and other employers that knowingly shielded accused molesters decades earlier.
The Oakland Diocese maintains the men are barred from suing because they did not do so during the one-year window and because of a since-abolished 1998 provision that allowed plaintiffs in child abuse cases to pursue court actions against a perpetrator’s employer only if they were under the age of 26. All the brothers had passed 26 by that time.
The brothers’ lawyers contend neither time limit applies to their clients because of a series of amendments adopted during the 1990s that gave victims three years from the time they discovered their mental suffering stemmed from long-ago abuse to go to court. A midlevel appeals court agreed in 2009, reversing a trial judge who had thrown out the case on statute of limitations grounds, and the diocese asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.
“The statute is a set of cake layers, and the question for the court is unraveling all these successive layers of modifications to try to determine a uniform rule for people over the age of 26 to bring actions against institutional defendants,” Richard Simon, a Hayward lawyer who represents clergy abuse plaintiffs, said.
At least eight other clergy abuse lawsuits involving similar claims of delayed discovery of psychological injuries are on hold throughout the state pending the Supreme Court’s decision in the Oakland case.
Broderson admitted in a sworn deposition he gave in 2005 in cases brought by other grown men that he had had sexual relationships with four sets of underage brothers, including at least two of the brothers in the case now before the Supreme Court, as well as with several other boys. The brothers in the Oakland case said his testimony triggered their realization that difficulties as adults stemmed from the abuse.