A Lawsuit Against All of California's Bishops Will Be Allowed to Proceed

The lawsuit would force church officials to release the names of alleged abusers in dioceses across the state.
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Survivors of sexual abuse by priests and clergy stand before photos of accused religious men during a news conference with lawyer Jeff Anderson of Jeff Anderson & Associates on February 14th, 2019, in New York City.

Survivors of sexual abuse by priests and clergy stand before photos of accused religious men during a news conference with lawyer Jeff Anderson of Jeff Anderson & Associates on February 14th, 2019, in New York City.

Last year, a California man sued bishops from every one of California's 11 dioceses, arguing that the church's history of concealing abusers' identities is a threat to free speech. This month, a California judge ruled that some of the claims in the lawsuit would be allowed to proceed—a decision that could force church officials to release the names of alleged abusers in dioceses across the state.

In a press conference about the court order on Monday, Tom Emens recalled the first time he spoke about his abuse publicly, in October of 2018, and called the ruling a "small victory":

It's another powerful moment in time. If you're a victim-survivor out there, this is a huge day for all of us. If you read these words here, what the judge said in the ruling, it rings true: This is a very long, difficult battle. ... But it's a moral battle, it's a just battle, and I will stand here with these people, these victims, these survivors, these advocates, and I'll do everything I can to hold the church accountable.

Emens, a 50-year-old Camarillo resident, has accused a now-deceased family priest who was in residence at an Anaheim, California, parish of grooming and abusing him from ages 10 to 12. While he cannot seek justice against his own abuser, Emens told Pacific Standard in a November of 2018 interview that he hopes his lawsuit will force the state's dioceses to confront a widespread pattern of clergy sex abuse and cover-up.

Emens' lawyers have called the decision a "landmark ruling." While it's not without precedent—a similar lawsuit by the firm forced the St. Cloud diocese in Minnesota to release a trove of personnel files across the state—it does mark another victory for survivors seeking legal action against the Catholic church, as they've done in Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Attorneys general in New York, New Jersey, and other states have also launched their own inquiries into priest sexual abuse, following Pennsylvania's example.

This year has already seen dramatic revelations across the country: In New York, the archdiocese released a list of 115 priests who have been accused of sexually abusing children. The release has been interpreted as a sign of contrition, the New York Times reports, but advocates say the dioceses often lowball these numbers.

Anderson & Associates, the same firm representing Emens in California, compiled a list of nearly 400 priests and church officials accused of abuse in Illinois, compared to the 200 named by the church, according to the Chicago Tribune. The firm also released reports accusing 307 priests of abuse in Los Angeles and 212 in the Bay Area. As I previously reported:

The Bay Area list more than doubles the number of abusers that the three dioceses have so far acknowledged, according to SNAP [Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests]. And yet lawyers and advocates agree it's still far too low. The majority of incidences of sexual assault go unreported, and that's especially true in the case of clergy abuse. (The Pennsylvania investigation found that up to 8 percent of priests in the state abused children.) But research shows most survivors of clergy sex abuse wait decades to report, if at all; many face stigma and fear of backlash in their community, as well as the ongoing trauma of abuse, and, often, a crisis of religious belief. One 2008 study found that less than 5 percent of cases were reported within a year. In California, where 29 percent of the population is Catholic, [Dan McNevin, a Bay Area leader for SNAP] estimates that as many as 2,000 priests could have abused thousands of children.

Lawyers for Emens told reporters on Monday that three California dioceses have yet to release lists and called the lists that have been released "deficient." This lawsuit could force church officials in San Francisco, Fresno, and Sacramento to disclose more information, attorney Jeff Anderson said.

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