Louisiana Legislature passes ‘fix’ to make it easier for sex abuse victims to sue

Legislation is meant to nullify the Catholic Church’s court argument

By: - June 1, 2022 11:19 am
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 approved Tuesday an update to a law it passed just last year that was supposed to make it easier for adult victims of childhood sex abuse to sue institutions such as the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America. 

The Louisiana House and Senate voted without objection to pass House Bill 402, by Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, which clarifies that victims of childhood abuse – no matter their current age – should have a chance to sue over their alleged mistreatment until 2024. 

The measure is slated to become law by the end of the month. Gov. John Bel Edwards could veto the measure, but has not indicated he intends to do so.

Lawmakers and advocates for sexual abuse victims initially said the legislation received pushback from insurance companies. Those who issued policies to the Catholic Church may have to pay out more money to victims under this update.

In 2021, legislators voted overwhelmingly to remove the time limit to bring lawsuits over child sex abuse, thereby exposing the Catholic Church in Louisiana and others to more claims. Prior to last year, a victim of child sex 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 had run 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 should be thrown out 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 old statute regarding child abuse that wasn’t enacted until that year. 

Judges have had different reactions to this argument, according to attorneys representing people suing the Catholic Church over child sex abuse.

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, according to Roger Stetter, the attorney handling the case for the alleged victim.

Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal came to a different conclusion. It upheld a ruling of Judge Laurie Hulin, with the 15th Judicial District Court in Lafayette. Hulin had rejected the Catholic Church’s argument that the law only applies to claims that extend back to 1993. Instead, she ruled that a lawsuit from an alleged victim who claimed their abuse occurred in 1961or 1962 could proceed. 

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 based on older allegations, wrote Gilbert Dozier, attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette, in a legal brief to the Third Circuit challenging Hulin’s decision.

The Lafayette diocese is appealing Hulin’s decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court. But by the time the court decides whether to take up the case, the bill passed by the lawmakers this week is likely to have already updated the existing law. 

Assuming Edwards doesn’t veto the measure, it will insert language into the 2021 statute that Dozier has claimed is missing and remove ambiguity about the 1993 limitation. 

Johnny Denenea, the attorney for the alleged victim in the case, said the legislation passed this week adds clarity about the intent of the law and backs up Hulin’s ruling. 

“The enhanced law will now stop the frivolous arguments of religious organizations and their lawyers that have confused some courts,” he said in a written statement.

Correction: Johnny Denenea is an attorney for alleged victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. He is not a “defense attorney” representing victims. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.