Jun 18, 2020
Dordulian Law Group’s founder and president, Samuel Dordulian, has described California’s Assembly Bill 218 (AB 218) as “a time machine” allowing his team to go “back in time, as far back as we need to, and prosecute childhood sexual assault crimes…even if the statute of limitations already expired.” Dordulian is specifically referring to the “lookback window” aspect of AB 218, which temporarily removes the statute of limitations on childhood sexual assault crimes for three years. Under the new law, which took effect in January 2020, all survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a three-year window to file a civil lawsuit against their abusers. From 2020 to the end of 2022, the statute of limitations is removed, meaning that predators (individuals and institutions) who would have otherwise been immune to civil prosecution are now open to litigation, and survivors may seek justice via financial damages regardless of when the crime occurred.
California’s AB 218 represents landmark legislation, with many additional states taking notice and considering implementing similar changes. This current opportunity for survivors to obtain justice is unprecedented, and abusers — particularly individuals and institutions guilty of systemic abuse and corruption — face severe ramifications. Accordingly, let’s take a look at how AB 218 could impact a particular institution facing rampant accusations of childhood sexual abuse, and what the temporary “time machine” means for survivors.
Studies indicate that only one-third of childhood sexual abuse survivors disclose as children, while one-third never disclose. The average age to disclose childhood sexual abuse is reportedly 52. When survivors do come forward, far too many are unable to obtain justice against their abusers due to the statute of limitations. AB 218 is an opportunity to change these tragic statistics.
When AB 218 was passed, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issued a statement declaring, “for the next three years that is no longer the case for victims in California,” referring to the average age that survivors come forward often barring their opportunity to seek justice. “By opening a window to justice and allowing survivors whose cases were previously barred by statute of limitation to be heard in court, important information can be exposed that can help create safer, more informed communities,” SNAP said.
By removing the statute of limitations, all survivors now have an opportunity to come forward and pursue justice. The scope of the law’s potential effect on survivors of abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church is difficult to fathom, as tens of thousands of individuals could now be eligible to seek financial damages.
Childhood sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has been widespread for decades. In 2004, a report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice determined that from 1950 to 2002 a total of 10,667 individuals made allegations of childhood sexual abuse against the Catholic Church. Of those allegations, the dioceses identified 6,700 unique accusations against 4,392 clergy over that time period in the U.S. That represents approximately 4% of all 109,694 ordained clergy (whether priests, deacons, or members of religious orders) active in the U.S. during the time covered by the study (which, it’s important to note, does not include the last 18 years).
Those staggering statistics are even more troubling considering the report found that of the 4,392 accused, only 252 (5.7%) were ever convicted. Given the statistics concerning the average age of disclosure for childhood sexual abuse victims, as well as the number of survivors who never come forward, there are without question countless individuals who now have an opportunity to seek justice against the Catholic Church through AB 218. The question remains, however, whether or not survivors will choose to come forward before the lookback window closes (taking the time machine with it).
It goes without saying that perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse are hoping survivors will not file a claim by December 31, 2022, after which time the statute of limitations resumes. If you are under 40 years of age on January 1, 2023, you will still be able to file a claim after the lookback window closes until your 40th birthday. Moreover, if you are over 40 after the lookback window closes you still may have an opportunity to file a civil lawsuit under the five-year statute of limitations for the discovery of an adulthood psychological injury resulting from childhood sexual abuse (we covered the details of both scenarios in an earlier blog post).
However, to have the greatest advantage in court and the greatest likelihood of success in a civil trial, it is imperative that survivors file a claim now, before the lookback window closes. Once the window closes, the law becomes more complex and open to interpretation. When pursuing justice, especially against powerful institutions with far-reaching influence, it is critical that you take advantage of every opportunity available under the law. AB 218’s lookback window is an invaluable opportunity for survivors seeking their day in court. We strongly recommend that survivors file a claim as soon as possible, on the record via a civil lawsuit, before the lookback window closes. Doing so will help ensure you have the greatest likelihood of success in recovering financial damages against your abuser.
A primary goal of pursuing a civil lawsuit for childhood sexual abuse is to recover financial damages from the perpetrator. In cases of abuse by a member of the Catholic Church, we will likely pursue damages against both the individual(s) responsible for committing the abuse, as well as the institution if we can prove responsibility in either knowingly allowing such heinous acts to occur on their watch, or failing to take action to stop such acts from occurring.
Under AB 218, survivors who have been the victim of a systematic cover-up (whether by individuals or institutions) are entitled to treble damages. “Treble damages” is a term referring to a statute permitting a court to triple the amount of the actual damages awarded to a prevailing plaintiff (i.e. if you were to be awarded a settlement for $5 million against the Catholic Church, under AB 218’s treble damages statute you would, in actuality, ultimately receive a $15 million settlement).
AB 218’s treble damages clause is viewed as an effort to prosecute widespread and systemic sexual abuse crimes throughout institutions and seemingly send a message to predators that such acts are not merely despicable, but intolerable.
Last year, KTLA reported that AB 218-related cases could cost the Catholic Church over $4 billion. The report cited the potential for triple damages to be awarded to survivors in instances where a cover-up can be proven.
The first, most important, and undeniably most difficult step in the healing process involves deciding whether or not to come forward, face one’s attacker, and pursue justice. Once that decision has been made, determining the best attorney to help you pursue a Catholic Church sex abuse civil lawsuit is a process that will likely involve extensive research and careful consideration.
At Dordulian Law Group, we believe survivors deserve representation and support that is comprehensive. Given the gravity of the cases we encounter, and the nature of the crimes committed, this means more than simply having a capable and experienced attorney as an advocate in the courtroom. If you’ve made the difficult decision to come forward and file a lawsuit against your attacker, we believe you deserve not only an experienced team to help you succeed in court, but a support network to assist you in moving on and establishing a semblance of closure. As such, we’ve established an in-house SAJE Team (Sexual Assault Justice Experts) to provide each survivor with four tiers of representation when pursuing a civil lawsuit against the Catholic Church:
With Dordulian Law Group, survivors have access to four tiers of all-inclusive representation and support.
The difficulty involved in making the decision to come forward and seek justice is highly personal and can only be fully understood by a survivor. It is our sincere hope that all survivors will take advantage of AB 218’s lookback window, given that currently only 0.005% of sexual assault perpetrators ever end up in prison. AB 218 is a groundbreaking opportunity — available for a limited three-year period — to change the tragic paradigm of a lack of justice for childhood sexual abuse crimes.
If you have questions regarding a possible claim against the Catholic Church or another sex crime matter, please contact us today. Our SAJE Team of dedicated advocates is here to assist all sexual abuse survivors in the journey of healing.
Our law firm in Glendale, CA advocates for victims of sexual assault, injury, employment disputes, and workers compensation concerns.