Wave of Lawsuits Against Catholic Church Arise Following New State Law

Content Warning: This article contains topics of sensitive issues such as sexual abuse and pedophilia. 

New California State Law AB 218 took effect on Jan. 1, 2020, which has led to a wave of new lawsuits against the Catholic Church. 

AB 218, a modified version of the California Child Victims Act, expands the statute of limitation and time to report sexual abuse cases that occurred during one’s childhood. Older adults in their senior years are now able to take legal action against their childhood predators. 

Zalkin Law Firm in San Diego, which deals with sexual abuse cases, has used the new law to pursue lawsuits against institutions, such as the Boy Scouts of America and Roman Catholic Church, that are historically tied to acts of pedophilia and child sexual abuse. 

In a Jan. 2, 2020 press conference with the law firm, an NBC article stated, “Zalkin Law Firm says it plans to file 125 new sexual abuse law suits against the Catholic Church and Diocese of San Diego.” 

Several attendees of the press conference were new Zalkin Law Firm clients, some of whom were already in their 70’s. The law firm is filing cases against the San Diego Catholic Diocese, as well as several of its parishes. 

“Priests who committed [the abuse] may be dead, but the diocese that allowed them to do this to these kids and covered it up, they’re very much alive,” Attorney Irwin Zalkin told the UCSD Guardian. “The victims have been in silence for so long, many of them have been keeping this inside of them. The diocese is accountable, even though the priests might be dead.” 

Zalkin also stressed how bringing these lawsuits into the public eye can encourage the Catholic Church to change its policies regarding sexual abuse of minors. 

“[Media] draws attention to the issue and causes institutions to have to rethink their policies and implement policies, which they are doing and have been doing since the lawsuits were filed previously,” Zalkin told the UCSD Guardian. 

One anonymous executive board member from a UCSD campus Catholic organization agreed with Zalkin’s view. 

“How can you put a money amount on something so abstract? Bringing [the case] into a trial will alert the diocese like ‘hey maybe we should fix this or change something in the system so this starts happening less.’”

The San Diego Catholic Diocese released a statement on Jan. 2 in response to the new wave of lawsuits.

“While we can’t respond to any specifics involved in these lawsuits, five of the six men mentioned in today’s news conference are known sexual predators whose names have been published on our website,” the statement read.

The statement also mentioned the Compensation Program run by the Catholic Diocese. 

“Regardless of the legal issues involved, we have a moral obligation to provide assistance to any victim-survivor of that abuse and we would urge their attorney to contact us so that counseling can be arranged at our expense,” the statement continued. “There are no prior conditions and the offer of counseling stands regardless of any lawsuit against the diocese.” 

The recently launched Independent Compensation Program is administered by seven dioceses in California and attempts to financially compensate victims for the abuses they endured as a child, as long as they provide documented proof of their abuse. It was officially launched September 2019 and the deadline to apply is Jan. 31, 2020.

According to the Program’s FAQ page, “Any Claimant who chooses to accept the offered compensation pursuant to the Program must surrender any right to go to court to sue any party relating to the alleged sexual abuse.”

The site is also unspecific with how much financial compensation each victim will receive, or if there are other resources the Program Administrators will provide to the “claimants.” 

“The Program Administrators have final decision-making authority to determine who is eligible and the amount of any compensation,” the FAQ page states. “The compensation will be determined based upon the experience and judgment of Mr. Feinberg and Ms. Biros and consistent with the Protocol.” 

Sexual Abuse Attorney Irwin Zalkin claims that the Program is meant to cover up the secrets of the abuse and discourage filing lawsuits with attorneys. 

“The Catholic Church has created an independent compensation fund and they’re trying to convince victims to apply to their fund and avoid lawyer and lawsuits and go to them directly,” Zalkin told the UCSD Guardian. “It keeps secrets, and it won’t make information public. It’s not a lawsuit, and financially trying to lure people when undervaluing [their abuse].” 

Zalkin also claims that “clients have gotten letters from [the Catholic Church], trying to dissuade people from pursuing lawsuits.” 

The anonymous source believes the new laws can encourage victims to receive a sense of justice, rather than just financial compensation.

“It’s very valid if their intent is in the right place,” the anonymous source told the UCSD Guardian. “Some people say they’re just after the money from the church. If their intent is to get justification, then it’s a good thing that this law went into effect … it’s really hard for victims to work up the courage.” 

The anonymous source notified the UCSD Guardian that the topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is discussed in their organizations, but is also not sure whether it is discussed in other Catholic student organizations. 

Victims who endured sexual abuse as a child who would like to take legal action with the Zalkin Law Firm can call 800-617-2622. However, this is not the only law firm that pursues sexual abuse lawsuits. Victims from campus-related sexual assault or abuse events can also call the UCSD campus police at 858-534-4357. 

Photo by Joshua Ben-Escher for the UCSD Guardian.

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