Hundreds of lawsuits with potential big payouts for victims of child sex abuse are expected after a new state law allows more time to sue accused perpetrators and the institutions where they worked.
The Catholic Church and other religious groups stand to be hit hardest under the Child Victims Act, according to victims rights advocates, who call the measure the nation's most expansive such law.
So far, at least eight suits have been filed against Catholic or other religious entities since the law was enacted in May, and hundreds more could be on the horizon based on the number filed in other states where similar laws were enacted, advocates say. Two Catholic dioceses sought bankruptcy protection in two of those states.
The law "allows more victims to protect more kids by exposing more predators," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims rights group. "It helps protect kids by allowing more victims to expose and deter more enablers — those who ignore and conceal child sex crimes."
The Diocese of Duluth is named as a defendant in the latest lawsuit, made public Wednesday. In that case, filed in St. Louis County, 55-year-old Michael DeRoche alleges he was abused as a 9-year-old by the Rev. John Nicholson, a priest then serving in the diocese. Nicholson, now deceased, is believed to have abused about 10 children, according to DeRoche's attorney, Mike Finnegan.
In a statement, the Diocese of Duluth said it "deeply regrets the long-lasting and devastating effects of sexual misconduct on the part of clergy and is completely committed to assisting its victims and preventing any recurrence of these crimes."
Under the new state law, the civil statute of limitations that previously gave child sex abuse victims until age 24 to sue is removed. Victims over age 24 have a three-year window to sue for past abuse. Anyone under 24 — as of May 25, when the new law went into effect — has an unlimited time to file. Other states have enacted similar laws with one- and two-year windows, but Minnesota is the first to give victims a three-year period, advocates say.
Since the act became law, five of Minnesota's six Catholic dioceses have been named as defendants in lawsuits brought by adults, alleging sex abuse at the hands of clergy when they were children.
In those cases, the alleged abuse took place from the 1960s to the early 2000s; the complaints allege Catholic leaders knew about reports of abuse but did not turn perpetrators over to authorities or publicly disclose the abuse. In one suit, Shattuck-St. Mary's Episcopal preparatory school in Faribault is named as a defendant; in a separate suit, St. John's abbey and prep school in Collegeville, Minn., are named.
The six priests accused of abuse in the latest cases have been identified in previous lawsuits; two are still living and are not involved in active ministry, according to Finnegan, who works with Jeff Anderson and Associates, a St. Paul-based law firm that has represented hundreds of victims of sex abuse by clergy. Anderson was a chief advocate for passing the Child Victims Act.
All told, the men stand accused of abusing nearly 180 children, Finnegan added.
In the lawsuits against the Catholic dioceses, Anderson's office is asking that church leaders release the names of all priests who have "credible allegations" of sexual abuse.
The Minnesota Religious Council, the lobbying body for Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist churches, opposed the Child Victims Act. Spokesman Brian McClung declined to comment about the new law's potential effects on religious groups earlier this week.
The Twin Cities archdiocese released a statement Thursday saying that "it is too soon to know" what the potential effects may be on the church "as the law only came into effect at the end of May."
$700 million in payouts
Other states that passed similar laws saw a huge response. More than 1,000 claims were filed in California during its one-year window in 2003, with more than 800 of those against Catholic entities, said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York, who tracks statute of limitations changes nationwide. The church's total payout in those cases was near $700 million, she added. The Diocese of San Diego also filed for bankruptcy protection.
In Delaware, which had a two-year window open from 2007-09, she estimates there were upward of 200 cases, most against Catholic entities; the Diocese of Wilmington ended up filing for bankruptcy, she notes. Hawaii has a two-year window that opened last year.
In Minnesota, lawsuits could easily reach into the hundreds, with many expected to be filed against Catholic and other religious denominations, Hamilton said. Schools and other institutions are also potential targets for suits as word spreads about the new law.
"Given the last year and half, with Penn State, Syracuse … I also expect you will see a lot more activity not just with the Catholic Church, but with schools generally," she said.
Rose French 612-673-4352