The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling of a law that allows victims of child sexual abuse to file claims regardless of when the abuse occurred. The law had been called unconstitutional by the Catholic Church and other institutions commonly named in the Sam Doe v. The Society of the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Lafayette lawsuit. The court’s decision in this case is a win for sex abuse survivors seeking long overdue justice. It will also significantly impact the hundreds of people who have filed claims in the bankruptcy case against the Archdiocese of New Orleans and other Louisiana sex abuse claims. 

Herman Herman Katz, with counsel, initially filed the Sam Doe case in 2020, and they briefed and argued it in the Third Circuit. The “lookback window” law in question was passed in 2021 by the Louisiana legislature. It created a three-year period where child sex abuse survivors could sue the institutions that failed them, even if the lawsuits were previously ineligible under the statute of limitations. The historic Dutch Romanesque Revival style Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist or La Cathedrale St-Jean built in 1916 on Cathedral Street in downtown Lafayette, Louisiana

Importance of Sam Doe vs. The Diocese of Lafayette Clergy Abuse Case

In the Sam Doe case, an anonymous man alleged that Father Stanley Begnaud, a priest in Lafayette, abused him when he was 16. The diocese knew of Begnaud’s behavior – even labeling him a “known pedophile” in internal notes – but transferred him to a different church rather than removing him from ministry. Doe filed the lawsuit before the 2021 law and argued that the legislation should allow his claim to continue. The diocese responded by alleging that the lookback window law violated its constitutional rights. The Louisiana law has faced pushback from other institutions who argue that courts should apply the law more narrowly. However, dozens of other states have upheld similar legislation as constitutional. Additionally, the law passed the Louisiana Legislature with unanimous support from lawmakers. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about sex abuse is that a victim will alert someone immediately. Reporting is even more challenging for children who are abused by authority figures. Their abusers often groom them into thinking the crime is normal, and they may wonder whether they are at fault after realizing they were violated. Studies have shown that most child abuse victims wait until they are adults to share what happened to them; the average age for disclosure is 52 years old. The previous Louisiana statute of limitations only allowed civil lawsuits before a victim turned 28, which didn’t account for what statistics show us. Sex abuse victims often repress traumatic abuse or blame themselves, and it can take years of therapy to overcome the shame they feel and gather the courage to speak up about their experience. Based on what we know about the traumatic effects of sex abuse, limiting when sex abuse victims can pursue justice does them a disservice. 

More than 300 Catholic priests in New Orleans have been accused of sexual assault over the last several decades. The archdiocese referred only a handful of these claims to law enforcement officials, leaving thousands of victims without the justice they should have received from an organization tasked with protecting them. The Sam Doe ruling is significant for survivors considering legal action because it allows these Louisiana clergy abuse lawsuits to advance in the court system. 

Sam Doe’s legal team, which includes HHK partner Soren Gisleson and co-counsels Richard Trahant and Johnny Denenea – released a statement after the Third Circuit ruling thanking state judge Elizabeth Pickett. “The decision … is a resounding victory for all victim-survivors of childhood sexual abuse. [It] caught the law up with the science.”

The Louisiana lookback window closes on June 14, 2024, and victims must file their lawsuits by then. Herman Herman Katz represents more sex abuse survivors suing the Archdiocese of New Orleans than any other firm. If you’ve experienced clergy sex abuse, contact us today to schedule a free, confidential consultation or call at 844-943-7626.

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