Louisiana Supreme Court weighs constitutionality of law reviving old claims of child sexual abuse

Published: May. 1, 2023 at 11:01 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Louisiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday (May 1) in a case that could have major implications for hundreds of sexual abuse survivors and the financial future of both the Archdiocese of New Orleans and other Louisiana Catholic institutions.

In T.S. v. Congregation of Holy Cross Southern Province, the court is weighing whether the property rights of alleged abusers and the organizations that employed them are trumped by the rights of the victims of the alleged abuse.

The state legislature in 2021 passed a law that eliminated the civil statute of limitations for claims made by survivors of child sexual abuse, and opened a three-year window for abuse victims to come forward with claims that previously would have prescribed under the law. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Jason Hughes (D-New Orleans).

Previously, child sex abuse victims only had until the age of 28 to file a claim.

“What this legislation does is to try to stop the cover-up of sexual abuse, to bring out the secrets that so many victims suffer (from),” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy. “The perpetrator should not benefit from the silence they caused in their victims.”

Robb’s organization has helped to write and push through similar bills in a dozen states, the majority of which she said have withstood court challenges.

“The legislative body has acted, and we hope that this court will understand that it is within their power and there is a compelling state interest to revive this claim, because these survivors were silenced by such horrific and criminal acts,” Robb said.

Fox 8′s cameras were allowed in for a rare glimpse into the court’s proceedings Monday afternoon.

“Despite what we have read in some of the briefings supporting the defendants, this, this court, is not the forum for second-guessing the legislature’s policy choices,” Camille Gauthier, an attorney for the unnamed plaintiff, told the justices. “The legislature spoke clearly and unequivocally.”

In seeking to have a lower court’s ruling overturned, Gauthier held that property rights of both accused abusers and the institutions employing them can be restricted in extreme circumstances and when the legislature clearly spells out its intent, which she said this law does.

“The legislature acted with one clear and unanimous voice that mandated the end of a culture of sexual abuse of the children of Louisiana,” Gauthier said.

Brittany Wolf-Freedman, an attorney with Child USAdvocacy, told the court, “By enacting the revival window that’s at issue here, the legislature acted within its power when it weighed the rights of child abuse victims against the property rights of sexual predators and those legally accountable for their actions. It unanimously found the rights of child victims trump those of their abusers.”

Ian Atkinson, an attorney representing the congregation and Holy Cross College, said that his client has a “vested right” not to be sued because the legal deadline had passed, and argued that the legislature does not have the authority to take a vested right away.

Atkinson said once the statute of limitations is reached, the accused and the institutions employing them should be protected.

But in an exchange with Justice William Crain, Atkinson admitted that this case is different from any “run of the mill” tort claim.

“I think everybody here would agree that the abuse of a child is probably the most unforgiveable thing that any of us can think of,” Atkinson said.

“And that’s what the legislature has done,” Crain responded. “It’s said it’s going to be unforgiveable.”

Following the hearing, victims and their advocates rallied on the steps of the Supreme Court.

“So many victims out here, they really blame themselves for what happened,” said John Anderson, a survivor of alleged child sexual abuse. “This is the one thing that I strive daily is to support people, not only here in Louisiana, but around the world. It is a worldwide pandemic right now.

“It’s about the safety of our children, and what’s going to happen in the future. This is what I have lived through. And I’ve been through hell.”

The court’s decision will impact the majority of around 500 claims of abuse levied against the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Gauthier said. The archdiocese is currently wrapped up in a federal bankruptcy case tied to the claims.

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