Article By: @DoniTheDon_

The Due Process Clause, traditionally seen as a shield against arbitrary government action, recently took center stage in a Louisiana High Court decision that has broadened its interpretation, particularly concerning allegations of past abuse. The case, Bienvenu v. Diocese of Lafayette, turned the spotlight on the due process rights of institutions facing historical allegations of wrongdoing.

In this case, the allegations stem from a series of purported incidents in the 1970s where boys, then aged between eight and fourteen, were alleged to have been sexually abused by their parish priest in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Due to their severe and sensitive nature, such allegations often go unreported for many years. Indeed, the survivors in this case did not make their allegations public until many years later, a common delay that speaks to the complex emotional and psychological barriers faced by survivors of childhood trauma.

To address this issue, the Louisiana legislature enacted the Louisiana Child Victims Act of 2021. This act carved out a three-year "look-back window," during which survivors could initiate lawsuits for claims that would typically be barred due to the lapse of the prescriptive period. This legislative window was designed to recognize and accommodate the unique challenges inherent in these allegations.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice James Genovese, acknowledged this context but held that due process protections afforded the defendants a "vested property right" against claims that had been prescribed, stating, "the legislature lacked the authority to revive the prescribed claims set forth under the facts alleged in this case" (Bienvenu v. Diocese of Lafayette, 2023). This ruling effectively nullified the opportunity for the plaintiffs to seek legal redress under the new law, underscoring the court's interpretation of property rights within the due process framework.

After the court made its decision, Richard Windmann, who is the president of Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse, expressed the distress of the alleged victims and their supporters. His comments highlighted institutions' failure to address the seriousness of the allegations. Windmann's remarks emphasized how the victims' long-standing grievances have been ignored and the legal hurdles they still face.

In 2020, Windmann stated:

“It is a serious problem when the district attorney in Lafayette says on public TV that he doesn’t have to do an investigation because ‘the church has already done their investigation.’

Chief Justice John Weimer's opinion differed from the majority's approach. He expressed concern that the court's emphasis on the defense of prescription could be interpreted as downplaying the survivors' pursuit of justice. The dissent highlights the legal challenge of ensuring that claims of severe abuse are heard, even when they are filed outside the typical legal timeframes.

The Bienvenu v. Diocese of Lafayette case represents a struggle - the need for legal recourse to address childhood abuse within the constraints of prescriptive law. This case raises a vital question: How can we reconcile the rights of institutions with the need for justice for those who claim harm from decades ago? As we grapple with this issue, let us not forget the importance of ensuring that institutions are held accountable for harm inflicted on individuals, especially children. The story of the Bienvenu plaintiffs serves as a poignant reminder of this responsibility.

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