Spreading the Word About Sex-Abuse Victims' Rights

Times Staff Writer

Raising awareness about a state law that took effect Wednesday, alleged victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests distributed leaflets New Year's Day at malls and grocery stores throughout California and encouraged others to come forward.

From Sacramento to San Bernardino, they told passersby about the law, which lifted the statute of limitations on molestation lawsuits for one year beginning Jan. 1. Meanwhile, attorneys for alleged victims continued discussing the possibility of mediation that could result in settlements rather than civil trials for many clients.

Carlos Perez-Carrillo, a member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, handed out leaflets at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. When a woman said she was Jewish and didn't need the information, he responded that abuse can happen to everyone.

"A lot of people only associate this problem with the Catholic Church," said Perez-Carrillo, 36. "We want everyone to know that if they are a victim of this type of crime, they can feel validated and they can receive some kind of justice," he said.

The law, passed by the California Legislature last year, is expected to bring hundreds of lawsuits that can be filed as early as today. Under the old statute of limitations, lawsuits could only be filed until the age of 26 or up to three years after the alleged victim first realized the link between the sexual abuse and physical and emotional damage.

Now, alleged victims can file suits anytime in 2003, regardless of when the abuse occurred. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said he expects that the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the nation's largest, could be named in upward of 300 lawsuits.

Perez-Carrillo, who said he was abused over a three-year period as a boy, said he feels it is his duty to tell people about their legal rights. "Sometimes it feels like a losing battle," he said. "But if I don't do it, who is going to?"

Standing nearby, Armida Price said she believes there are hundreds of victims who may not know about the law. Price also distributed leaflets Wednesday, urging people to contact the Catholic Church. The fliers also call upon people to talk to leaders of youth groups and congregations to ensure that children are being protected from potential abuse.

"Whether it's a school or a church, children need to be kept safe," said Price, 39, who said she did not want to talk about her personal experience because of possible litigation.

Attorneys for alleged victims in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Diocese of Orange agreed Tuesday to negotiate more than 100 claims rather than file lawsuits immediately.

The step was taken under a mediation effort with church officials that could speed up the process and make it more private.

On Jan. 8, attorneys are scheduled to meet with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman. If a written agreement is reached then, attorneys for both sides would move into a mediation process, said Katherine Kay Freberg of Irvine.

Freberg, who represents nearly 80 clients, said she is cautiously optimistic about the process but has not ruled out lawsuits.

In five years of litigation against the Catholic Church in Los Angeles and Orange counties, Freberg said she has fought "battle after battle after battle."

Stockton attorney Larry Drivon, who is part of a team that represents roughly 250 clients statewide, said he is also concerned that church officials may be unwilling to hand over information. "I would pray that the church has had a moral epiphany that directly supplements and contradicts its practices for the last 2,000 years," Drivon said. "I remain skeptical."

But Drivon, who said he is in mediation with church officials in Sacramento on other cases, said he is confident that mediation will be used in Southern California as well.

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