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Louisiana's new child sexual abuse law surprises advocates, legislators

The new law also provides a “revival window,” a period of three years for victims to file new lawsuits making claims that would have already expired.

There’s a sea-change in perceptions about child sexual abuse, and that change surprised many when it came to Louisiana in the form of a major change in the law this week.

Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bill Monday that passed both houses of the Louisiana Legislature unanimously last week. Going forward, it eliminates any deadline, previously set at age 28, for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abusers or those who allowed the abuse to occur.

The new law also provides a “revival window,” a period of three years for victims to file new lawsuits making claims that would have already expired.

“The scars of childhood sexual abuse may stay with survivors long-term and they deserve more time to report these devastating crimes,” Edwards’ spokeswoman Christina Stephens said.

The author of the bill, Kathryn Robb, said Louisiana was behind a nationwide trend of child victims laws that really took off in 2019, but now has one of the country’s strongest.

“I believe that Louisiana has jumped from a ‘D’ -- if that -- up to the front of the class to go to a solid ‘A,’” said Robb, the executive director of Child USAdvocacy, which is affiliated with the nonprofit child protection group Child USA.

Robb crafted the bill sponsored by State Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, who said he was shocked by how many people had been affected by child sexual abuse, met with some survivors and felt compelled to do something.

“I’m not a lawyer, not a victim of child sexual abuse, I don’t have anyone in my family who was a victim that I’m aware of,” Hughes said. “I have zero connection, zero to gain from this. I was simply inspired by the victims’ stories.”

Robb, a victim of child sexual abuse who did not come forward until her 40s, cited research showing the average age for victims to make their claims is 52, well beyond the age limit previously set by Louisiana law. She also said the majority of victims report abuse at the hands of family members or family friends.

Only about 4 percent of reported abuse involves Catholic clergy, but the victims who spoke out loudest in Louisiana were survivors of sexual abuse by priests and deacons. Groups like Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse rallied victims to testify in hearings at the State Capitol, ensuring the legislation didn’t lose its strongest provisions.

Mike Brandner Sr. went to Baton Rouge to testify about his younger brother Scot, who committed suicide in 1993 and who, Mike believes, was sexually abused by a priest as a child. WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate told the Brandners’ story in August 2020 after finding evidence that other people had made similar allegations against the same priest for almost 20 years.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans finally placed that priest, the Rev. Brian Highfill, on its list of credibly accused clergy. Mike Brandner told a legislative committee that other victims started calling him after the story aired on WWL-TV, illustrating the need to eliminate the statute of limitations for filing child abuse claims.

“It took the WWL report to legitimize, in their minds, their claims and their experience,” he said.

John Anderson, one of the rare victims who spoke out about the abuse he suffered when he was still a child, also testified for the bill. He already received compensation for his claims against the late deacon George Brignac, so he won’t benefit personally from the change in the law. But he pushed for it to help future victims.

As a leader in the group Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse, Anderson cheered the change in perceptions about survivors, who not long ago would be ostracized for speaking out.

“You don't get pushed away anymore. Now it's more of a receptive type environment,” he said. “Everywhere that I go, I get nothing but praise for the work that we're doing.”

The bill Hughes initially submitted included a five-year revival window for old claims. Hughes said the insurance lobby balked at that. The Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops also filed a red card in opposition the bill at that point, so Hughes agreed to remove the revival window and set a deadline for victims to file claims by their 53rd birthday.

The church expressed support for the bill at that point.

But when the bill went to the state Senate, Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, filed amendments that restored the revival window at three years and eliminated the statute of limitations for victims to come forward with new claims that hadn’t already expired.

The revival window was restored, but the Catholic church did not restore its objections. The Archdiocese of New Orleans put out a statement in support of the bill, although Robb called it “duplicitous” and “wishy washy.”

"As a church we remain committed to doing all that we can for the healing of survivors of abuse,” archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said. “This legislation allows those abused -- not only in churches and schools but in their families, playgrounds, workplaces, youth organizations, and other public businesses where children and teenagers should be safe -- to pursue their claims in court regardless of when it occurred.”

Even Hughes was surprised that the stronger bill sailed through with no more opposition.

“Anything dealing with (statute of limitations) is typically a nonstarter,” he said. “But I’m still getting messages from victims and survivors thanking me for pushing it forward. I never really realized the magnitude of this, how many victims and survivors needed a shot at justice.”

Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said he expects insurance companies to fight the constitutionality of the new law, not only in Louisiana but across the country. He is neutral in the matter but expects insurers and their shareholders to oppose any coverage they would be expected to provide retroactively to cover claims that would have been time-barred previously.

“This issue will resonate on a national basis and certainly, I think, bring about litigation as to its constitutionality, and as to the retroactive coverage that would be available or not available to policyholders such as the archdiocese,” Donelon said.

In a column for Bloomberg News last year, insurance industry attorneys Michael Zigelman and Rita Wang raised concerns about the way those laws expose insurance companies cover child sex abuse claims that were previously time-barred.

“To retroactively enlarge the (statute of limitations) effectively increases the insurers’ exposure beyond what they had initially agreed to assume,” the lawyers wrote. “The impact could be severe as to those insureds with substantial exposure to child sexual abuse claims, such as the Boy Scouts, Catholic dioceses, daycare centers and any other facilities that oversaw operations involving minors.”