Thursday, June 14, 2012

The American Roman Catholic Church and American Tort Lawyers

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the American Roman Catholic Church is fighting for its survival against tort lawyers who are trying to bring large numbers of civil actions for sexual abuse that, in many instances, occurred -- allegedly occurred -- decades ago. The current theater of battle is over persistent efforts by tort lawyers and their allies to get states to abolish or amend statutes of limitations that currently impede civil recoveries for (alleged) misconduct that occurred long ago. In this blog I have intermittently chronicled alleged victims' lawyers' repeated use of junk science ("repressed and recovered memory" and analogous "prods" to memory) in their pursuit of  what they claim is justice for long-silent alleged victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. I am now convinced that a very substantial fraction -- probably the majority -- of claims against Catholic clergy for conduct that allegedly took place decades ago are bogus. I also worry that the selection of the Roman Catholic Church as the principal target of sex abuse claims reflects, not the relative scale of the problem of sexual abuse in different sectors of American society, but, in part, prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, all in all, I am glad to see that the current efforts to get states to remove statutes of limitations as barriers to new tort litigation against the Roman Catholic Church seem to be stymied for the time being.

I would not normally cite or quote New Times articles as a reliable source about the long-simmering [Catholic] clergy sexual abuse scandal -- I believe that the NYTimes' coverage of the scandal has been  gravely unbalanced; the NYTimes generally seems not to not have seriously questioned whether the financial interests of the tort lawyers on which it seems to rely requires that the claims of the tort lawyers (and their clients) be examined with a skeptical eye  -- but, despite the tone of the headline, the innards of the following current article has some material of interest about the current fight over states' statutes of limitations:

Laurie Goodstein & Eric Eckholm, Church Battles Efforts to Ease Sex Abuse Suits NYTimes (June 14, 2012):

Victims [sic!; "alleged victims" would be more appropriate] and their advocates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York are pushing legislators to lengthen the limits or abolish them altogether, and to open temporary “windows” during which victims can file lawsuits no matter how long after the alleged abuse occurred.

The Catholic Church has successfully beaten back such proposals in many states, arguing that it is difficult to get reliable evidence when decades have passed and that the changes seem more aimed at bankrupting the church than easing the pain of victims. 

Already reeling from about $2.5 billion spent on legal fees, settlements and prevention programs relating to child sexual abuse, the church has fought especially hard against the window laws, which it sees as an open-ended and unfair exposure for accusations from the distant past. In at least two states, Colorado and New York, the church even hired high-priced lobbying and public relations firms to supplement its own efforts. Colorado parishes handed out postcards for churchgoers to send to their representatives, while in Ohio, bishops themselves pressed legislators to water down a bill. 


“How can an institution conceivably defend itself against a claim that is 40, 50 or 60 years old?” Mr. Brannigan said. “Statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade.”

“This bill would not protect a single child,” he said, while “it would generate an enormous transfer of money in lawsuits to lawyers.”


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