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Louisiana high court vacates own ruling on ‘look back law’ for abuse claims, says it’s constitutional

A gavel and block are seen in this undated file photo. The state supreme courts in Colorado and Louisiana issued rulings in cases that challenged the constitutionality of removing the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims. (OSV News photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

NEW ORLEANS (OSV News) — In a 5-2 ruling June 12, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed its earlier decision to scrap a “look back law” for abuse survivors and declared it to be constitutional.

The move could have a profound impact on several Catholic dioceses in the state that are already grappling with significant legal settlements and ongoing investigations.

On May 10, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted a rehearing on a March ruling that had overturned a “look back law” passed in 2021 and amended in 2022, which gave victims of child sexual abuse until June 14 of this year to file civil claims regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred. The Louisiana Legislature June 3 approved a Senate bill to extend the period another three years, until June 14, 2027.

The court’s 4-3 March ruling had found that law was at odds with the state constitution’s due process, prompting dismay from abuse survivors and advocates, and a filing for a rehearing from state attorney general Liz Murrill.

The high court ruled that its original decree declaring the revival provision of the “look back law” to be unconstitutional “is vacated.”

“Given Louisiana’s legitimate interest in protecting its citizens who were sexually abused as minors and in providing them with the ability to seek redress in the courts, and the narrowly tailored nature of the relief provided … it is clear that defendants have failed to satisfy the ‘heavy burden’ of proving the unconstitutionality of the revival provision,” said Chief Justice John Weimer writing for the majority.

The ruling noted the legislation revived, “for a short period of time … a narrow category of tort victims.” The revival provision at issue “has been demonstrated to have a substantial relationship to public safety, morals and welfare,” Weimer wrote.

“The resolution here will not ‘open the floodgates’ of unrestrained legislative action, as every legislative action must comport with due process,” he continued. “This case is strictly limited to its facts, examining whether a singular legislative act, addressing a particular systemic societal problem, hidden from the public, and impacting children and touching on the public safety, morals and welfare, comports with due process.

“Each case must be tested on its own unique circumstances. In virtually every case this court is called on to resolve, each party predicts catastrophe and dire consequences should the opposing party prevail.”

The case argued before the court that resulted in this ruling was against the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, and St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church in St. Martinville, Louisiana. The plaintiffs — Douglas Bienvenu and several other complainants — filed suit in 2018 alleging they were sexually abused between 1971 and 1979 by Father Kenneth Morvant while they were altar servers at the parish. According to the plaintiffs, Father Morvant had plied the boys — who then ranged in age from 8 to 14 — with alcohol and gifts during “sleepovers” at the rectory before molesting them.

Father Morvant died in 2003 at age 72, having served at several Diocese of Lafayette parishes over some four decades. He is buried on the grounds of St. Martin de Tours.

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