In most states, including Nevada, victims of sexual abuse by priests are unable to collect large financial settlements from local Catholic dioceses because most cases date back to the 1960s and 1970s and the statute of limitations for filing civil complaints has expired.
But in California, the legislature voted in 2002 to lift the limits for civil cases for one year, allowing victims to sue employers or institutions that knowingly protected or kept molesters.
As a result, hundreds of suits were filed, and dioceses across California settled cases for close to $1 billion — including a record $660 million settlement in Los Angeles.
Since that time, other states have begun to follow California’s lead: Delaware passed a bill in July that creates a two-year window for lawsuits, and other regions, including Alaska and Washington D.C., are debating similar legislation.
“The window literally empowers the victims to sit at the table and demand fair treatment,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City who has testified at state hearings to change the law. “It opens the court door to claims.”
In Nevada, one lawmaker said she is ready to take the idea to her colleagues during the next legislative session.
“From a victim’s perspective, we need to make sure justice is done,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. “I’d be willing to sponsor legislation to allow that to happen. As policymakers, we need to make sure victims are able to seek redress.”
Such a change could make a huge difference in the negotiation power of victims who have suffered at the hands of Reno priests, said one victim who settled with the Reno diocese in 2004.
“Everything would have been different” if Nevada had a statute of limitations window three years ago, said the woman, who reported that she was molested by the Rev. David Brusky while she was 9, 10 and 11 years old and accepted $50,000 from the diocese.
“I didn’t have a leg to stand on,” with the law written as it is, she said.
Tom Drendel, a Reno lawyer who has handled a number of priest abuse cases in recent years, agreed.
“That would mean a lot to some of the other victims out there, ” he said. “If that were to transpire in the state Legislature, you would see some people come forward who have not because of the problem with the statue of limitations as it exists.
“It would provide them hope.”
To date, payments to victims have remained under $100,000 in Nevada, Drendel said, and the diocese reported paying only $35,150 to victims in 2005. That’s compared with an average of $1.3 million recently paid to each of the victims who were part of the settlement with the Diocese of Los Angeles.
Limits in state law
According to Drendel, Nevada had one of the best laws in the country for victims of child sexual abuse because there was no time limit for filing a civil lawsuit.
The Legislature changed the law in 1991, adding one provision to make the law better. They made it easier for victims to prove their cases by easing the evidence standard. But they made it worse for victims, he said, by adding a time limit for when damages could be sought.
The law says that a person who was sexually abused as a minor can sue to recover damages if legal actions begin within 10 years after the person turns 18, or within 10 years after the victim “discovers or reasonably should have discovered that his injury was caused by the sexual abuse, whichever comes later.”
A person who was abused as a youth would have to report it by the time he or she turned 28. But if the person became aware of the abuse through therapy or by public exposure of other victims at age 40, he or she would have to file a suit before age 50.
This “delayed discovery of injury” clause was designed to recognize that many victims of sexual abuse don’t realize their abuse for years. Drendel said the law has failed to provide victims with the support they need.
In practice, he said, it has been difficult for victims to argue their cases when they discover or realize the abuse when they’re older because it’s hard to prove when a person actually became aware of the abuse.
Leslie said she planned to research the history of the law and craft a bill that will address some of the problems, including a possible one-or two-year window to file suit.
Any proposed change could face opposition from the Catholic church and the insurance industry, which covers many of the big victim payouts, Hamilton said. But the idea has seen success — passing unanimously in Delaware — and given victims new-found hope.
“My advice is to sit tight,” Hamilton said of any victims who might be negotiating with a diocese over an old abuse case. “You’ll be more effective with a live claim than a time-barred claim.”
MARTHA BELLISLE; RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL