SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California's highest court heard a precedent-setting case Thursday that could expose Roman Catholic dioceses in the state to another round of clergy abuse lawsuits.
The case before the California Supreme Court, which involves six brothers in their 40s and 50s, could allow adults who only recently connected their psychological problems to what happened to them as children to seek damages.
The brothers allege they were molested by an Oakland priest during the 1970s but didn't link it to their ongoing distress until 2006. The priest, Donald Broderson, was forced to retire amid abuse allegations in 1993 and died in 2010.
Although legal time limits generally prevent plaintiffs from bringing civil complaints based on long-ago events, the California Legislature has expanded the statute of limitations for child abuse lawsuits several times during the last 25 years to make it easier for victims of childhood abuse to pursue their claims.
Most recently, it opened a one-year window in 2003 for people who otherwise would have been prevented by the passage of time to sue churches, schools and other employers that knowingly shielded accused molesters decades earlier.
The Oakland Diocese maintains the men are precluded from suing now because they did not do so during the one-year window and because of a since-abolished 1998 provision that allowed plaintiffs in child abuse cases to go after a perpetrator's employer only if they were under the age of 26. All the brothers had passed 26 by then.
"This Legislature added an absolute age-26 bar," Margaret Grignon, the diocese's lawyer, told the court. "That is separate from delayed discovery" of problems stemming from long-ago abuse.
The brothers' lawyers contend neither time limit applies to their clients because of a series of amendments adopted during the 1990s that gave victims three years from when they realized their difficulties in adult life resulted from child abuse to go to court. A midlevel appeals court agreed in 2009, reversing a trial judge who had thrown out the case on statute of limitations grounds.
"Our clients...and other similarly situated victims have an opportunity to use that delayed accrual" of suffering to seek redress, said Irwin Zalkin, the brothers' lawyer. "If you are going to take the position that this claim was barred before it even accrued, you would be saying they never had the opportunity" to sue the diocese for covering up Broderson's actions.
Broderson admitted 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 now before the Supreme Court. He also admitted fondling other children, including one little girl.
The admissions came in since-settled cases brought by other grown men.
After receiving complaints from parents, Broderson's superiors transferred him between parishes and ordered him to undergo counseling. The brothers in the Oakland case said his testimony triggered the realization that abuse by the priest caused their difficulties as adults.
At least eight other clergy abuse lawsuits involving similar claims of belated discovery of psychological injuries are on hold throughout the state pending the Supreme Court's decision in the Oakland case.
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.
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 in the case heard Thursday.
The court's seven justices appeared conflicted on how to resolve the plaintiffs' desire for justice with state laws that allow statutes of limitations to be extended only when the Legislature makes it abundantly clear that was its intention.
"We don't read vague language to revive lapsed claims," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, saying it was unclear from the statute that lawmakers meant to give adults beyond the 2003 window to sue over decades-old allegations.
The line of questioning prompted Zalkin to urge the court — in an appeal Associate Justice Carol Corrigan would later characterize as histrionic — to resist the temptation to deny his clients out of concern that it would "open the floodgates" to more clergy abuse lawsuits.
"In the balance, these are people whose lives have suffered, they suffered in ways you cannot imagine," he said. "The defendants come here today en masse asking this court to shield them from accountability."
The Supreme Court has 90 days in which to issue its ruling.
"The statute is a set of cake layers, and the question for the court is unraveling all these successive layers of modifications to try to determine a uniform rule for people over the age of 26 to bring actions against institutional defendants," said Richard Simon, a Hayward lawyer who represents clergy abuse plaintiffs.