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Court upholds time limit for clergy abuse claims

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LISA LEFF | March 29, 2012 08:18 PM EST | AP

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SAN FRANCISCO — California's highest court sided with Oakland's Roman Catholic bishop and refused Thursday to reinstate a lawsuit brought by six brothers who allege they were molested by a priest during the 1970s.

The ruling could doom at least eight other pending cases involving decades-old clergy abuse claims.

The California Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the brothers had waited too long to bring their abuse claims involving the priest, Donald Broderson, who was forced to retire amid similar allegations in 1993 and died in 2010.

The state Legislature opened a one-year window for old clergy abuse complaints in 2003, and the men lost their chance to sue the diocese that hired Broderson as an associate pastor in Hayward when that timeframe ended, the court said.

"Although we are unreservedly sympathetic to the plight of persons who were subjected to childhood sexual abuse, we note that the preexisting limitations period, along with the one-year revival period ... afforded victims a very considerable time following the abuse in which to come to maturity, or even middle age, and discover the claim," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the majority.

Catholic dioceses and religious orders in California already have paid more than $1.1 billion since 2006 to settle child abuse lawsuits filed since the church clergy scandal erupted a decade ago.

Lawyers for the brothers in the Oakland case contended the time limit did not apply to the men because they did not make the link between their psychological problems as adults and what happened to them as children until after the filing window closed.

The justices, however, concluded the brothers were not eligible to employ the "delayed discovery" provision because the statute of limitations for them to sue the priest's employer already had lapsed under an earlier law that permitted victims to sue third parties only if they were under the age of 26.

"The Legislature was aware that it was striking a balance between the strong interest of victims of abuse in redress of grievous injury and the burden on third party defendants – who may have discarded records in reliance on prior law and lost access to witnesses – of being required to defend stale claims," Cantil-Sakauye said.

At least eight other lawsuits from plaintiffs making similar arguments for why they did not sue earlier have been on hold in California pending the court's ruling in the Oakland case. The court majority sent the case back to a midlevel appeals court that had ruled the brothers could take their claims to a jury, ordering the lower court to take "further action consistent with this opinion."

Associate Justices Carol Corrigan and Goodwin Liu wrote dissenting opinions. Corrigan said it would be unfair to prevent victims who continued to suffer the effects of childhood abuse from seeking financial compensation just because they discovered the source of their suffering late in life.

"It seems unlikely that the Legislature would single out one class of plaintiffs for arbitrary treatment, depriving them of any opportunity to sue upon discovery of their injuries while allowing other plaintiffs who suffer the same kind of injury a reasonable time after discovery to seek redress," she wrote.

Broderson acknowledged in a sworn deposition he gave in 2005 that he had had sexual relationships with four sets of underage brothers during the 1970s, including at least two of the brothers in the case considered by the state Supreme Court. He also acknowledged fondling other children, including one little girl.

The statements came in since-settled cases brought by other grown men. The brothers in the Oakland case said his testimony triggered the realization that abuse by the priest caused their difficulties as adults.

Their lawyer, Irwin Zalkin, said Thursday he was exploring alternate arguments he could use to keep his clients' lawsuit, and by extension the eight related cases, alive before the midlevel appeals court.

"There are some issues that were not addressed and some theories that were not addressed," he said. "I'm not sure it's entirely dead."

The archbishop of Los Angeles, the bishop of Sacramento, the Boy Scouts of America, the Order of Carmelites and a private school association all filed friend-of-the-court briefs siding with the Oakland diocese.