Clergy could be exposed to more sex abuse lawsuits

January 5, 2012 6:56:03 PM PST
A precedent-setting case being held in front of California's highest court could expose the Roman Catholic Diocese to more sex abuse lawsuits.

The case is examining the state's statute of limitations that put time limits on when plaintiffs can file civil suits. There were conflicting lower court rulings on this specific case, so the Diocese of Oakland asked the Supreme Court to step in.

Tim Lennon says he was abused by a Roman Catholic priest when he was a young boy, but it took him 30 years to come forward.

"This causes severe injury that have a lifelong effect, crippling injury and sometimes, you don't understand that until decades later," he told ABC7.

Lennon had SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He went to the California Supreme Court Thursday where the justices are deciding how late is too late to bring a clergy abuse lawsuit.

The case involves the late Reverend Donald Broderson who once served at St. Jochim's Parish in Hayward. Six brothers say he molested them during the 1970s, but they did not link that to their psychological problems until 2006. That was three years after the California Legislature extended the statute of limitations and opened a 1-year window in 2003 for victims to sue. The spokesman for the Oakland Diocese believes that means time is up.

"That statute of limitations that in 2003 opened up that opportunity, gave hundreds and hundreds of people throughout the state their day in court. All but several of those cases were settled including many that included the Diocese of Oakland," Michael Brown said.

He says the church has paid out millions.

"We accepted long ago, as did most other dicocese in the United States, the responsibility where there are victims and where there is proven guilt, that we have a responsibility to those victims," Brown added.

If the justices rule the brothers are barred from suing because the statute of limitations has run out, that could stop another wave of clergy abuse lawsuits.

Cynthia Tinsley says it was not until 2007 that she remembered being molested by a San Diego priest as a little girl.

"They can try to put a statute of limitations on it, but that statute of limitations is never going to take away what they took from us," she said.

The attorney for the six Quarry brothers said they did not want to speak to ABC7 News Thursday. The priest in the middle of the scandal died in 2010. The Supreme Court justices have 90 days to rule.