UNITED STATES—Church sex abuse has gained more notoriety and public recognition in the past decade. More recently, outrage has led many attorneys in various states to not only investigate their clergy but also make filing lawsuits easier for victims of church sex abuse.
Why the Recent Changes to Church Sex Abuse Laws
Dioceses across the nation were driving a cycle of reinstating priests elsewhere as a result of allegations. Accused clergy would continue their actions, despite the full knowledge of elected officials. When Pennsylvania broadcasted a report exposing that drastic extent of church sex abuse in 2016, public outrage spurred a campaign of investigations in other states.
Since then, hundreds of cases accusing priests of sexual abuse have emerged over more than 70 years. Due to the widespread suppression of allegations, states made revisions to previous church sex abuse laws, particularly since many accused priests may have offenses spanning over decades.
However, due to societal restrictions and shame, coupled with the power of church leadership, victims have had no choice but to remain silent. Previously, as adults, suing for an offense that occurred decades ago was not an available option. In recent years, this has changed.
What States Changed Their Church Sex Abuse Laws?
Law reformations began in 2018, with at least 15 states amending their laws. Many of these changes increase the time limit or age that victims are eligible to sue.
Others established a lookback window of varying periods, in which victims can regain the opportunity to litigate, which they could not do before.
States With Time Limit Extensions
There are many reasons why survivors of sexual abuse might stay silent. Crimes of this nature can leave victims feeling confused, ashamed and embarrassed.
For all these reasons and more, the following states have chosen to grant time limit extensions:
- Pennsylvania raised the age from 30 to 55 only for future cases
- Michigan raised the age from 19 to 28
- Rhode Island raised the age from 25 (against abusers) and 21 (against institutions) to 41
- Connecticut raised the age from 48 to 51
- Alabama raised the age from 21 to 25
- Texas raised the age from 19 to 28
- Tennessee raised the age from 19 to 33
States With Look-Back Windows
Children are especially vulnerable to abuse by adults they trust or figures of authority. They might not fully grasp the situation until years later. For this reason, these states made the look-back window available to child sex abuse survivors:
- New York: Two-year window starting Dec. 1
- New Jersey: Two year window opened Dec. 1
- California: Three-year window opened in June
- Vermont: Removed all age limits and has no expiration on window
- Montana: Two-year window opened May 7
- Arizona: Nineteen-month window opened June
- North Carolina: Two-year window opened January
- District of Columbia: Two-year window opened May
- Hawaii: Reopened window (first opened in 2012) in 2018 until April of 2020
The Impact of Church Sex Laws Revisions
Since revisions in 2018, hundreds of victims have stepped forward. In an NPR report, the total cost in settlements across all U.S. churches was well over three billion dollars.
Top states like New York, New Jersey, and California have witnessed substantial impacts. Both New York and New Jersey administered a two-year window, while California made it a three-year window. While lawyers initially expected 5,000 new cases, the impact exceeded expectations.
Currently, with financial strains from the pandemic on top of continued litigation accusing more clergy members, many churches have gone bankrupt.
In New York, only a month after the window opened, twenty churches had already filed for bankruptcy. One of the largest national dioceses filed for bankruptcy due to the influx of lawsuits. The Diocese of Rockville Centre, a church for 1.4 million Long Island Catholics, received a staggering 200 lawsuits since New York’s extension of the state of limitation.
In August, New York introduced the New York Child Victims Act, allowing for lawsuits against crimes tracing back decades. Considering that cover-ups of church sex abuse have been ongoing since the 1940s, the high volume of lawsuits is not so surprising.
Sexual abuse can leave victims with physical and emotional damage. Between medical bills and counseling, victims can be left in need of financial aid (thefitchlawfirm.com). If you suffered abuse and don’t know what to do next, you can turn to your attorney to offer assistance in this troublesome time.