Monday, October 10, 2005
A particularly well informed reader offers the following comments on the legality of retroactive suspension or extension of statutes of limitation in sexual abuse cases. prompted by my post on the call for such a suspension or extension in Pennsylvania in response to the grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:I read with interest your posts at Mirror of Justice regarding the
Philadelphia grand jury report. Those of us who litigate these cases
around the country were, obviously, deeply dismayed by the report.
Having briefed statute of limitations defenses to sex abuse claims more
times than I care to remember, I can answer your questions fairly
quickly. A retroactive extension of the criminal statute of limitations
would be an unconstitutional violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause. See
Stogner v. California. 539 U.S. 607 (2003). A retroactive extension of
the civil statute of limitations, however, would almost certainly not
pose federal constitutional problems. See Chase Securities Corp. v.
Donaldson, 325 U.S. 304 (1945). It's harder to speak generally about
possible state constitutional problems with reviving time-barred claims,
but recent decisions have not been favorable for the church. Compare
Roman Catholic Bishop of Oakland v. Superior Court, 28 Cal. Rptr. 3d 355
(Cal. App. 2005) (stating that it is "well settled that legislation
reviving the statute of limitations on civil law claims does not violate
constitutional principles"), with D.P. v. M.J.O., 640 N.E. 2d 1323 (Ill.
App. 1994) (holding that limitations defense is a vested right under
Illinois law that cannot be impaired by retroactive legislation).
I'm not sure I understand what Father Araujo is saying [in his post following mine -MAS]. Surely no state
legislature has or will consider lifting the statute of limitations
specifically for claims against the church or church-related actors--the
proposals on the table around the country call for suspending or
extending the limitations period for claims related to sexual abuse, no
matter the identity of the defendant. And, unless I am missing
something, it simply isn't true that "all statutes of limitations and
repose involving criminal and civil cases are open to suspension or
revocation....[i]f statutes of limitation or repose can be suspended in
one type of case, equal protection would require the same in all cases."
Legislatures routinely extend the statute of limitations (criminal or
civil) in one type of case without revising the statute in other types
of cases. Those revisions don't raise any equal protection
concerns--well, I suppose so long as the revisions could pass rational
basis review, which they almost certainly could in the case of extending
the statute for sex abuse claims (due to understandable delays in
bringing claims, the specter of fraudulent concealment, etc.).