The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal is allowing a sex abuse lawsuit against the Diocese of Lafayette to move forward. The decision signals a victory for survivors seeking justice decades after they suffered sexual abuse. In 2021, the Louisiana legislature passed a lookback window law and created a three-year window for victims of sex abuse to file civil lawsuits, regardless of when the abuse occurred.
The lookback window ends on June 14, 2024, and survivors considering legal action should move quickly. Before the law went into effect, Louisiana sex abuse survivors could only file lawsuits until they turned 28 years old. Many victims don’t realize they’ve been violated until long after the abuse occurs. One study found that the average childhood sex abuse survivor doesn’t come forward until 52 — nearly double the age of the previous cutoff. Louisiana clergy abuse has long been a problem, and victims may find it harder to come forward.
Sam Doe vs. The Diocese of Lafayette
Some religious institutions named in sex abuse lawsuits have challenged the constitutionality of the claims. The Third Circuit Court considered Sam Doe vs. The Diocese of Lafayette, a lawsuit filed in 2020 by Herman Herman Katz and co-counsel. Sam Doe alleged that Fr. Stanley Begnaud, an ordained priest, assaulted him when he was 16. The priest wasn’t ever removed from his position, even though the diocese reportedly labeled him a “known pedophile” on internal documents. He died shortly after retiring and never faced accountability for the alleged crimes. In 2019, Sam Doe realized he’d been abused after years of therapy. He filed a lawsuit against the diocese for negligence and fraudulent concealment, alleging that the organization covered up the priest’s crimes.
The complaint wouldn’t have been able to proceed under Louisiana’s previous laws, but the lookback window legislation gave Sam Doe and other victims a chance to sue decades after the abuse occurred. The diocese responded by filing an exception and said that the claim was “prescribed,” which means that the plaintiff waited too long to sue. The diocese also argued that the lookback law was unconstitutional. A trial court ruled that Doe’s lawsuit fell within the lookback law. The diocese appealed, and the appeals court agreed with the trial court’s decision.
The Constitutionality of Lookback Window Laws
Much of the court’s ruling hinges on the constitutionality of Act 322 and Act 386. Act 322 is the original lookback legislation Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law in 2021. However, the act’s wording created a potential loophole for the Catholic church and other institutions. It references a statute enacted in 1993, so attorneys argued that the law only applied to abuse that occurred in 1993 or later. The legislature passed Act 386 last year, designed to remove any ambiguity from the original law. The Act reads: “It is the express intent of the legislature to revive until June 14, 2024, any cause of action related to sexual abuse of a minor that previously prescribed under any Louisiana prescriptive period.”
The appeals court’s ruling finds that the more recent act clarifies the first piece of legislation. When Act 322 is interpreted by Act 386, minors who suffered sexual abuse can sue even if the abuse occurred before 1993. In the decision, Judge Elizabeth Pickett writes that lookback laws serve the public interest “by providing an opportunity for the most vulnerable members of our society to hold accountable those responsible for the lifelong damage they have endured.”
The diocese can appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court to further challenge the decision. In June, the court sidestepped a ruling in a similar case. It declined to rule on the lookback law’s constitutionality, a setback for victims who hoped the Supreme Court would declare the law constitutional. The appeals court’s decision to let the Sam Doe lawsuit continue is a welcome step forward.
What This Means For Louisiana Sex Abuse Survivors
If you experienced childhood sexual abuse, now is the time to contact a Louisiana sex abuse attorney. We have less than a year until the lookback window expires in 2024, and a lawyer can help you navigate the litigation about sex abuse lawsuits under the lookback window laws.
Herman Herman Katz specializes in clergy sex abuse cases in Louisiana and nationwide. We are currently representing victims of childhood sex abuse who are seeking justice from the institutions that failed to keep them safe from abusers. Contact us for a free, confidential case review, or call us at 844-943-7626.
Soren E. Gisleson, is a Partner at Herman, Herman & Katz, L.L.C. and attorney advocate for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.