A Louisiana law was supposed to make it easier for abuse victims to sue. It needs fixing.

By: - April 26, 2022 7:57 pm
Catholic Church interior abuse victims

Louisiana legislators have passed an update to a law enacted last year that would make it easier to sue institutions over child sexual abuse. (Canva image)

The Louisiana Legislature is looking to fix a law created last year that was supposed to make it easier for abuse victims to sue institutions like the Catholic Church. Instead, it might have imposed unintended restrictions on the very litigation it was designed to help. 

The Louisiana House voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of House Bill 402, by Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, which is meant to clarify that victims of childhood abuse  – no matter their current age – should have a chance to sue over their mistreatment until 2024. 

“This bill only seeks to clarify legislative intent. I’m not trying to expand anything. I’m not trying to add anything,” Hughes said. 

Lawmakers and advocates say the legislation has received pushback behind closed doors from insurance companies. Those who issued policies to the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America and other institutions may have to pay out more money if the legislation passes. 

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In 2021, lawmakers voted unanimously to remove the time limit to bring lawsuits over child abuse, thereby exposing the Catholic Church and others to more claims. Prior to last year, a victim of child abuse had to sue before they were 28 years old. 

Last year’s new law also established a three-year “lookback window” that was supposed to allow any adult victim of child sex abuse to file a lawsuit by the middle of 2024 if they ran out of time to do so under prior law. Legislators said it was meant to give older victims who had not grappled with their abuse until later in life a shot at compensation.

Yet over the past year, the Catholic Church has repeatedly argued in Louisiana courts that some of the claims being brought under the lookback window are not valid because the window only applies to abuse that has happened since 1993. Attorneys for the church said last year’s law is restrictive because it references an older statute regarding child abuse that wasn’t enacted until 1993. 

Judges have had different responses to this argument, according to attorneys representing abuse victims suing the Catholic Church.

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott dismissed a lawsuit brought against Jesuit High School in New Orleans because the alleged abuse occurred before 1993,  Roger Stetter, the attorney handling the case for an alleged victim, said in an interview. 

Judge Laurie Hulin, with the 15th Judicial District Court in Lafayette, came to the opposite conclusion. She rejected the Catholic Church’s argument that the law only applies to claims that extend back to 1993. Instead, Hulin ruled that a lawsuit from an alleged victim who claimed their abuse occurred in 1961 or 1962 could proceed. 

In the same lawsuit, Hulin also rejected another argument from the Catholic Church claiming that lawmakers only intended to allow lawsuits to be brought against individuals, such as priests, and not institutions like the Catholic Church.

The law passed last year is missing a reference to the state’s Children’s Code that would allow lawsuits against the church and other institutions, wrote Gilbert Dozier, attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette, in a legal brief related to the case. Dozier is appealing Hulin’s ruling to the state’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal.

Hughes’ legislation inserts language into the 2021 statute that Dozier has claimed is missing and removes ambiguity about the 1993 limitation.

Several legislators also disagreed with the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the lawmakers’ intentions. Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said legislators assumed the law passed last year would allow any alleged victim, regardless of when the abuse took place, to sue the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts or another organization during the lookback period.

“I think the obvious intent for the window was for all victims to have their day in court,” Henry said.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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