These child victims of sexual abuse were given the opportunity to obtain justice. The Louisiana Supreme Court removed it. – Mother Jones

Collage of a teenager, the Louisiana Supreme Court building and the official seal.

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Teenage girl in the 1990s, Zack was regularly abused by an older man affiliated with his church in Louisiana. Zack, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his privacy, said his attacker often made him feel like he was responsible for the assault, despite the fact that he was a minor. When the abuse came to light, her church did nothing to dispel the feeling: Her abuser was asked to leave the church for a year before being allowed to return. In the years that followed, Zack saw reports of child sexual abuse victims successfully suing their churches and wanted to do the same – but the moment this option occurred to him, his case had already passed Louisiana’s statute of limitations.

In 2021, Zack finally got a second chance at justice, when the Louisiana state legislature passed a three-year “look back period” that allowed victims of child sexual abuse to sue. civil suits for crimes committed many years ago. He began preparing to file his suit before the legislature-imposed deadline of June 2024. But then, last March, before Zack could file his suit, the Louisiana Supreme Court canceled the lookback window. , deeming it unconstitutional. . It was damning news for Zack and hundreds of other Louisiana survivors, who now must await the results of a lengthy legal battle to see if they will be able to move forward with their claims. In a rare move, the court agreed to rehear the case earlier this month, with additional briefs expected this week. If the ruling stands, it will mean that adult survivors like Zack will have lost one of their few options for obtaining justice through the legal system.

Trial windows can be a lifeline for victims whose claims were previously statute-barred, and they have been essential in some of the most high-profile cases of the post-MeToo era, including E’s trial. Jean Carroll against Donald Trump. . According to the children’s rights think tank Child USA, since 2018, 20 states have passed laws providing feedback deadlines for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits. The March ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court makes Louisiana one of only two states, along with Utah, to declare these laws unconstitutional.

In its 4-3 decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court sided with the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette, which had challenged the rollback law after being sued by 11 survivors of sexual abuse on children. The court ruled that the lookback window infringed on the diocese’s right to defend against civil litigation using the statute of limitations.

The ruling has potential implications not only for the victims of the Lafayette case, but also for hundreds of other survivors with pending abuse claims against other churches. In New Orleans, more than 500 survivors have filed suit against the archdiocese for sexual abuse and are currently awaiting the results of a years-long bankruptcy proceeding that will determine what kind of restitution, if any, they will receive. they will get from the church. Today, victims face even more uncertainty about what they might receive at the end of this process. If the court’s decision to repeal the look-back period stands, each survivor would have to prove that their case meets one of the few exceptions to the state’s statute of limitations – for example, if they had repressed memories of the abuse. However, these exceptions are rarely granted, lawyers told me.

“That the courts found that the legislature did not even have the authority to revive claims was a big surprise to me,” said Zack’s attorney, Kristi Schubert. “Many of my clients were completely drained. This sent them the message that a child molester’s right to escape responsibility for raping a child is more important than a sexual abuse survivor’s right to seek justice.

Steve McEvoy, another Schubert client and one of the victims in the New Orleans case, said he struggled with alcohol addiction and mental health issues for decades due to rape in his childhood. His mental health problems resurfaced after the court’s decision, but this time he had a network of other victims to help him cope. “Your body just wants to lengthen, but mentally you have to go in a different direction,” he said. “There are so many people around you who are ready to fight.”

After the ruling, the plaintiffs and Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill asked the court to review the case. Murrill wrote that the court’s decision “strikes at the very heart of the separation of powers.” The judiciary has overstepped its role, she added, risking a future where courts “start making policy decisions rather than leaving policymaking to the legislature and executive.”

As survivors await the results of the Supreme Court’s rehearing, the Louisiana state legislature is working on a bill to extend the lookback period for another three years, through 2027. The bill The law has passed the Senate and awaits House approval. But the future of the bill is uncertain if the Supreme Court upholds its decision.

As Schubert pointed out, the court’s decision could have repercussions far beyond the abuse cases currently working their way through the justice system. “One thing I really wish more people understood is that the look-back period isn’t just about benefiting abuse survivors themselves,” she said. “This benefits everyone because civil lawsuits related to childhood sexual abuse claims play a vital role in forcing organizations to improve their policies and finally start taking protection from abuse seriously.” »