Micheal Collins Webb sees a threat to the Catholic Church.
That threat is posed by new laws that make it easier for people to revive decades-old sexual abuse allegations, most involving suspects who have already died, said the in-house attorney for the Diocese of San Diego. Often, these laws ignore the larger number of victims who were abused in public schools in order to target the Catholic Church’s money.
Colorado legislators are crafting a law that would eliminate the statute of limitations — a proposal patterned after a nearly identical, two-year-old law in California. Other legislatures throughout the country are planning to follow the lead of Colorado and California.
Webb, whose first name is pronounced the same as “Michael,” spoke with Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen.
How many cases are you defending as a result of the California law?
One hundred and forty claims were filed against the Diocese of San Diego.
Why are statutes of limitations important in civil and criminal law?
Since the inception of statutory law in the United States, all states and the federal government have had limitations for civil and criminal proceedings in the interest of fundamental fairness. It is unfair to bring a claim against someone or some entity based on old or stale facts, or after so much time has passed that witnesses have moved or passed away or their memories have faded, and documents are lost. Fairness dictates that if you have a claim, you must bring it within a reasonable period of time, so that you’re not basing your claim on stale facts and stale testimony, failed memories and other potentially unreliable evidence.
Please explain what the law in California does.
The law revived expired claims, and that’s an exceedingly important issue. The claims that will be brought pursuant to SB 143 [in Colorado] and those that have been brought pursuant to SB 1779 [in California] were expired. They were untimely. They had expired by operation of law, and if they had been brought in court in 2003 without being revived by SB 1779, the courts would have dismissed them. These laws breathe new life into dead cases. In California we now have some claims going back into the ’30s and ’40s, and most are based on allegations of abuse from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. These cases are 50, 40 and 30 years old.
Do any of the claims involve convicted perpetrators?
In the history of this diocese, I’m aware of no criminal convictions of any priests, or anyone else, involving childhood sexual abuse.
Have plaintiffs’ lawyers benefited from the California law?
Yes, they’ve made a great deal of money. These cases are a plaintiff’s lawyer’s dream come true. Let’s take a claim from the ’50s, for example. If that claim had been pursued successfully on a timely basis in the ’50s or ’60s, it probably would have been worth $10,000 or maybe $20,000. Because of this statute, however, they’re able to bring that claim out of the ’60s and into the 2000s, into a world where million-dollar judgments are common.
The law has inflated the value of the claims. It is our understanding that the lawyers representing plaintiffs take these cases on a basis of contingent fees plus costs, and that some of the lawyers in California are charging contingent fees of 40% plus costs. Costs can run 10% of an award, which means the lawyers will recover anywhere from 40% to 50% of anything paid by judgment or settlement to the plaintiff. Because of this increase in value, plaintiffs’ lawyers in California were aggressively looking for clients. They were beating the bushes for cases, trying to find claimants, advertising, soliciting people to talk to them, and sending investigators out to look for clients.
They actually advertised?
Yes, there were some advertisements. I understand that they usually looked by finding one person abused by a particular perpetrator and having that person network them into others. You may anticipate something along those lines in Colorado. I do know of one California lawyer in particular who was reported by a Colorado newspaper to be in Colorado, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other California plaintiffs’ lawyers are or will be in Colorado as well.
Have any of the California cases been settled or resolved yet?
Yes, there were approximately 1,000 of these cases filed against the two archdioceses and 10 dioceses in California, and of those about 200 have been resolved, mostly through settlements, but a few through trials. There are about 750 cases still active.
Will we see bankruptcies and the selling of Church properties?
It is very possible, if this law is upheld.
Have you seen evidence of fake victims trying to exploit the new law?
With allegations as old as these, it’s almost impossible to determine. There was one claim that the attorneys representing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were able to prove was false. But when you’re reviewing claims as old as the ones filed against this diocese, and the only living witness is the purported victim, it’s very difficult to determine whether something did happen, or whether the allegations have been embellished or even fabricated. That’s one of the serious problems with having to defend against revived claims that are decades old.
Certainly you don’t want to risk questioning the integrity of a legitimate victim, whom the Church would have nothing but compassion for?
That raises the issue of pastoral outreach, as opposed to civil litigation. From a pastoral perspective, priests and bishops must do what they do pastorally and ignore in large part the civil litigation side of it. That’s difficult and it’s risky because the plaintiffs may ultimately argue that by granting pastoral assistance to a victim the dioceses are admitting that these people were injured, and that their injuries were caused by the dioceses. On the civil side, it’s a lawsuit, and we as lawyers have to look at it as a lawsuit. We must put the plaintiffs to their proof.
So, from a legal standpoint the Church would be better off not giving pastoral care?
No. The Church must always be the Church the bishops must always be bishops, and priests must always be priests. If we were representing General Motors in these cases we would tell them, “Don’t talk to anyone; don’t say anything; don’t offer any help.” But we aren’t dealing with a corporation. We’re dealing with the Church, and the Church must continue God’s mission.
Throughout the United States, many homeless shelters, AIDS hospices, soup kitchens and hospitals are funded and run by the Church. Do people understand that to sue the Church is to sue the poor?
No. The general public’s and the plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients believe the Catholic Church is infinitely wealthy. However, the dioceses are not wealthy, and payment of settlements or judgments may seriously impede the charitable work of the Church, as well as the operation of its schools and parishes.
Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, a Catholic who initiated the Colorado legislation, told me that multiple large judgments won’t hurt the Church because it’s insured.
I don’t know how SB 143 will impact the dioceses in Colorado, but regarding the dioceses of California, I know that comment is untrue. Not only will these suits impede the missions of the Church, there’s a substantial likelihood that one or more of the dioceses in California will not survive. This diocese in particular, with 140 cases against it, faces the potential of insolvency.
Does the California law allow victims to sue public school districts, decades after abuse by a teacher?
No. The California Legislature specifically did not include any public institutions within the scope of SB 1779, and that means not just schools, but also juvenile halls and all other institutions that are publicly owned and operated and routinely deal with children.
Most Catholic children attend public schools, so the Archdiocese of Denver has raised concerns about a federal study showing an epidemic of sexual abuse against children in public schools. Why are politicians and the media mostly ignoring this crisis?
I think legislators don’t want to open these types of cases up to public entities because of the money involved. The only way public entities could pay claims like those the legislatures want the Catholic Church to pay would be to raise taxes, and that’s not politically correct. The media knows about the public school sexual abuse situation, and using the information from the [Charol] Shakeshaft Report, in California more children have been abused in public schools than even attend Catholic schools. This information was provided to reporters at the San Diego Union-Tribune, but there was no mention of it in their reports. The media want to focus on the Catholic Church, and they are not interested in reporting on the public school sexual abuse crisis.
Why should Catholics outside of Colorado and California care about this?
Not just Catholics, but everyone associated with any private entity that has adult men associating with children should care about this. Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Boy Scouts/Cubs Scouts, all churches, all sports organizations and all private schools should be deeply concerned if these laws are upheld. Allegations of childhood sexual abuse are very difficult to defend against. Childhood sexual abuse is understandably repugnant to society in general, and people tend to believe allegations as soon as they’re spoken, without any element of proof. The ultimate effect on some private organizations may be their destruction.
Wayne Laugesen writes
from Boulder, Colorado.