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The Louisiana Supreme Court says Priests Have the "Right" to Not Be Sued for Abuse



In 2021, the Louisiana legislature enacted a law to institute a "look-back" period for victims of sexual assault. This measure allowed individuals alleging sexual abuse from any time frame to pursue legal action against their alleged perpetrators, provided they filed their lawsuits by June 2024. However, the court ultimately deemed this look-back provision unconstitutional.



The Diocese of Lafayette (Bienvenu v. Diocese of Lafayette) has emerged victorious in a church clergy sex abuse case, as the Louisiana Supreme Court justices have ruled in their favor. The case revolved around St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church in St. Martinville, where six plaintiffs alleged that they were molested by Father Kenneth Morvant many years ago when they were just children.


The focal point of the state supreme court's deliberation was a 2021 law that introduced a three-year lookback window. However, the judges concluded that the Louisiana Legislature had overstepped its constitutional boundaries by allowing lawsuits to be filed during this period. Consequently, any clergy sex abuse case falling within the lookback window will not proceed to court.


"Today, four of the seven Louisiana Supreme Court justices overruled a law passed by a unanimous Louisiana legislature, signed by then Governor Edwards, supported by then Attorney General Jeff Landry, and current Attorney General Liz Murrill. This law was upheld by a trial judge and a majority of the court of appeal. That’s nearly 200 elected officials who viewed this law as being constitutional. Four elected officials just obliterated that. They cannot fathom the excruciating pain this decision has heaped upon adults who were raped as children and already suffer a life sentence."


The court, in its assessment, clarifies that its task was to ascertain if the clauses in the laws "affect the defendant's established rights." As per the court's interpretation, rights are deemed "vested" when they have become the possession of specific individuals, either currently or potentially, as an immediate entitlement.


In 2021, the Louisiana legislature enacted a law to institute a "look-back" period for victims of sexual assault. This measure allowed individuals alleging sexual abuse from any time frame to pursue legal action against their alleged perpetrators, provided they filed their lawsuits by June 2024. However, the court ultimately deemed this look-back provision unconstitutional.

 



Louisiana is not alone in repealing such legislation. Courts in Utah and Colorado have also invalidated similar look-back periods, and challenges to similar provisions persist across the country due to the complexities of prosecuting crimes with limited evidence that may have occurred many years ago.


The Louisiana Civil Code, influenced by the French Code, aims to safeguard property owners' rights over extended periods. Article 3443 outlines "liberation prescription," a means of barring actions due to inactivity for a specified duration.


Following thorough explanation and references to legal precedents, the court's decision is evident. Despite the disturbing allegations in the case, the justices concluded that applying La. R.S. 9:2800.9 retroactively to revive the plaintiffs' expired claim is impermissible. Doing so would infringe upon defendants' vested right to assert prescription, contrary to Article I, Section 2 of the Louisiana Constitution.


While acknowledging the legislation's noble intentions, the court found it incompatible with the due process safeguards outlined in the state constitution. The majority opinion overturned and partially nullified a prior ruling from the trial court that favored the plaintiffs.


Justice Weimer dissented, asserting that the legislative measures outlined in the mentioned civil codes are constitutional.


Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry has set in motion an imminent constitutional convention through the proposal of HB 800. Perhaps the delegates' efforts will involve updating civil codes to better reflect the challenges faced by child victims of sexual abuse, who often suffer ongoing harm into adulthood.




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