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High court rejects California Catholic bishops’ bid for review of California Child Victims Act

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an 11th-hour plea by nine Catholic bishops and archbishops, including Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa, seeking to overturn a California law allowing people to sue over childhood sex abuse regardless of how long ago it occurred.

Citing the “ruinously expensive” cost of defending even illegitimate claims, church officials argued that reopening a three-year “look-back period” that expands the statute of limitations on such cases unconstitutionally exposes them to liability in violation of due process protections — particularly since an earlier, one-year window in 2003 prompted massive settlements the church assumed would be the last word on the sex abuse scandal.

“Since the State’s previous revival statute induced the Dioceses to take dramatic steps to pay for the last round of revived claims, the Dioceses now stand largely defenseless against this second wave,” the petition states. “The potential financial implications for the Church are thus nothing short of ruinous.”

The high court’s refusal to hear the case lets stand state legislation that opened a period in 2020 that runs through Dec. 31 allowing survivors of childhood sexual abuse to bring cases against their perpetrators and those who might have protected them.

Suits involving the Catholic Church are being coordinated statewide in proceedings at three courthouses, with the Northern California cases, including those involving the Santa Rosa Diocese, running through the Oakland courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo.

Mike Reck, an attorney for Jeff Anderson & Associations, a prominent national firm in child sex abuse cases, said he’s aware at this point of up to 300 cases in the Northern California proceedings, though he was unable to breakdown what geographical areas they represent.

Reck, who runs Anderson’s West Coast office, said his firm currently represented 48 people who had survived alleged abuse in parishes, schools, camps or other facilities associated with the Santa Rosa Diocese. He said he expected many more cases would come to light as the December deadline neared.

The diocese has a long and unfortunate history with abuse and had paid at least $33 million as of 2019 to settle cases, many of them involving a group of four priests who had many victims between them.

In 2019, Vasa released the names of 39 priests and deacons who had been credibly accused or had committed child sex abuse, about 25 of them deceased at the time.

Four of them — Gary Timmons, Don Kimball, Austin Peter Keegan and Francisco Xavier Ochoa — were responsible for 63 known victims. All but Timmons have died.

The bishop was not available for comment on Tuesday afternoon, but Reck said Vasa had been fighting the state child abuse act “since its inception,” filing legal motions in his own name because the diocese was a named defendant.

Others who signed the petition included the archbishops of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the bishops of Orange, Fresno, Monterey, Oakland, Sacramento and San Jose.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also intervened in the case.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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