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  Police officer Manuel Vega, who says he was molested by a priest 20 years ago, lobbied for the new law that lifts the statute of limitations for one year on child sexual abuse crimes. (Los Angeles Times Photo / Melmelcon)

Flood of suits on abuse seen in California

By Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 1/1/2003

A new California law suspending the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes takes effect today, and attorneys and church officials expect it to spark hundreds of new lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a dozen other dioceses across the state.

The new law lifts the statute of limitations for one year and specifically allows alleged victims to sue institutions that employed and protected alleged abusers. Church officials have said they will challenge it, arguing that lifting the statute of limitations is unconstitutional and unfairly singles out the Catholic Church.

While church officials say they are committed to helping victims of sexual molestation by priests, no matter how long ago the episodes occurred, officials also complain that the new law could expose the church to enormous financial liabilities based on witness testimony that is decades old.

Attorneys working with alleged victims in California said they know of more than 200 new cases that will be filed. Cases pursued in anticipation of the new law, which was signed in July, have already resulted in the arrests or removal of two dozen Catholic priests in the state, according to victims' advocates.

''It's huge,'' said Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey R. Anderson, who is representing several alleged victims. ''It creates a window for one year for any survivor of sexual abuse to bring action against perpetrators or any institution that allowed it to occur.''

Connecticut and Oregon have passed laws extending the time an adult victim has to file a lawsuit for molestation that allegedly occurred many years ago, but legal specialists say California's law is even more liberal because it suspends the statue of limitations outright on many old claims.

''The effects of the law could be overwhelming and cause the church leaders an enormous amount of public embarrassment,'' according to Mitchell Garabedian, whose law office represents nearly 300 individuals with abuse claims against the Archdiocese of Boston. ''The law really gives strength to the victim and it will be interesting to see how the church leaders handle the accusations.''

In December, bishops and priests from more than 1,100 Catholic churches in California warned their congregations that the church may face a wave of lawsuits as a result of the law.

''For the duration of year 2003, this law allows people to file lawsuits against dioceses and California employers based upon claims that arose many decades ago,'' the statement said. ''Some of these lawsuits may involve the revival of already settled cases and some may involve alleged perpetrators and witnesses long since dead. Under those circumstances, it will be difficult, if not impossible to ascertain the truth.''

A spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese did not respond to several requests for comment yesterday.

''It is unconscionable that of all institutions - the church would try to oppose this law by trying to overturn it,'' said Mary Grant, regional director of the Southern California chapter for Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests. ''This law is going to enable child sexual abuse victims to expose sexual molesters and seek justice in court.''

Under the previous California law, suits based on childhood sexual abuse can be brought until the individual reaches age 26. If the abuse is discovered after that age, a lawsuit may be brought within three years of the discovery, and the individual's attorney and a licensed medical health practitioner must assert that the lawsuit has merit. In most cases, the alleged victim could sue an individual, not the institution.

''To me, what happened in Boston will happen here in California,'' said Manuel Vega, a 36-year-old Oxnard, Calif., police officer who helped lobby for the legislation to waive the statute of limitations. Vega says he was molested 20 years ago by Fidencio Silva, a priest who was last reported working in Mexico for his order, the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit.

Vega said the sexual abuse, which included fondling and taking nude pictures, began to bother him so much in recent years that he finally asked a former altar boy and fellow police officer if he, too, had been molested by Silva.

His friend went pale. ''He said `Yes, it was springtime in the sixth grade,''' recalled Vega.

Anderson found Silva in Mexico, and Vega and 11 other men filed a lawsuit against him. Silva has denied the allegations.

''As a victim, this is a humongous accomplishment, but not only does it benefit me, but it benefits a whole lot of people who were abused. It opens a whole lot of other avenues for people to have some closure,'' said Vega.

John C. Manly, a California attorney who is representing a number of other alleged victims of clergy abuse, said the new law applies to other institutions as well as the Catholic Church, including schools, athletic organizations, and the Boy Scouts of America.

The power of the new California law, critics and supporters pointed out, is that it allows for the refiling of cases that were previously dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out. It also places greater responsibility on institutions that employ alleged abusers, where the original law had no such provision.

Manly said he plans to file 35 new civil lawsuits against the church and estimated that the number of new cases could total well into the hundreds. ''I think there is going to be 500 to 1,000 cases statewide when it is all said and done,'' he said.

Anderson said his legal team has filed more than 50 lawsuits in California since the law was passed in order to minimize the time the church had ''to protect predators and themselves.'' He and his team have already uncovered information that has led to criminal investigations, charges, and the removal of more than 20 priests in California.

''We couldn't wait for the law to take effect,'' said Anderson.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/1/2003.
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