Sexual abuse victims’ chance to file lawsuits in old cases remains in question after court ruling

Jun 27, 2023, 4:47 PM

FILE - The rear view on Chartres Street of the newly renovated home of the Louisiana Supreme Court ...

FILE - The rear view on Chartres Street of the newly renovated home of the Louisiana Supreme Court located in the French Quarter of New Orleans, May 10, 2004. Louisiana’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, sidestepped a ruling on the constitutionality of legislation that gives victims of childhood sexual abuse a renewed chance to file lawsuits after the usual time limits for such suits has expired. (AP Photo/Judi Bottoni, File)

(AP Photo/Judi Bottoni, File)

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday sidestepped a ruling on the constitutionality of legislation that gives victims of childhood sexual abuse a renewed chance to file lawsuits after the usual time limits for such suits have expired.

The ruling had been highly anticipated by advocates for abuse victims, who had hoped the state’s highest court would uphold the constitutionality of legislation passed in 2021 and revised in 2022.

The legislation was passed by lawmakers under the theory that fear and stigma might have kept victims from revealing the abuse as children and into adulthood. Lawmakers debated it against the backdrop of ongoing global revelations of sex abuse of children by clergy.

The Louisiana legislation gives victims until mid-2024 to file such lawsuits if they missed deadlines to file in existing law.

Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, a national nonprofit agency that advocates for better child protection laws, decried the ruling as a missed opportunity to uphold the law.

“Sadly, they punted it,” Robb said in an interview. “I think this is just going to further injure so many survivors who have been waiting for so long for their day in court, for justice and accountability.”

Robb said 26 states have passed similar “revival” laws granting victims a new chance to sue. She said 12 have been upheld so far.

The Louisiana case involved a man identified in court records only by the initials T.S. He had sued officials of a Catholic school in New Orleans, saying he was sexually abused by a priest there in 1965, when he was 11 years old.

A lower court had ruled against T.S., saying the 2021 legislation reviving his opportunity to sue was unconstitutional. Tuesday’s ruling vacated that decision on what amounts to procedural grounds. The high court said T.S. wasn’t eligible to sue — even under the language of the 2021 legislation — so it is premature to rule on the constitutionality of the law.

“While we acknowledge this case presents a sensitive issue which is important to the citizens of our state, we cannot ignore the fundamental principles of orderly statutory interpretation,” Justice James Genovese wrote.

Three justices dissented and two of them wrote opinions saying the majority failed to address a 2022 revision of the 2021 law that would allow T.S. to pursue his suit if the laws are found to be constitutional. T.S. could amend his suit, filed in 2021, to account for the 2022 changes, they noted. But Chief Justice John Weimer said he shouldn’t have to.

“The highest court in this state should resolve the underlying issue to provide necessary resolution and then closure, which these parties and countless others still hope to find,” Weimer wrote.

It was unclear Tuesday when the court will again address the issue, although Robb said there are likely hundreds of other cases in the state.

Robb said the continued uncertainty could dissuade other victims from filing suit before the June 2024 deadline.

“You’ve already had so many, numerous trust issues with those in authority, and to have the highest court say, ‘Let’s save it for another day.’ I can’t imagine the pain,” she said.

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Sexual abuse victims’ chance to file lawsuits in old cases remains in question after court ruling