On June 10, 2021, Louisiana lawmakers in the House and Senate passed a bill for childhood sexual abuse survivors. This bill eliminates the legal deadline for civil cases of child sexual abuse. Additionally, it opens a three-year, retroactive “look back” window for older cases of abuse. On June 14, 2021, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the bill into law. The law will go into effect on August 1, 2021.
This bill was supported by survivors and victim advocates, including Councilman Jackie Berthelot, representing Gretna, Louisiana. In May, Berthelot testified before state lawmakers and revealed his past sexual abuse by a Catholic priest.
Louisiana Lawmakers Eliminate Deadline For Abuse Survivors
To help survivors in their pursuit of legal justice, Louisiana lawmakers passed House Bill 492 (HB 492). The bill eliminates the state’s statute of limitations for civil claims of child sexual abuse.
HB 492 gives survivors of child sex abuse unlimited time to file a civil claim against an abuser or a responsible institution. Prior to the new law, the statute expired when a survivor turned 28 years old.
The bill also includes retroactive measures to help survivors whose ability to file claims has already passed.
HB 492 Includes Retroactive Measures
HB 492 includes a three-year “look back” window. This measure revives civil claims of any child sexual abuse victim who is currently over the age of 28. For three years, any child sexual abuse survivor in Louisiana can file a civil claim against an abuser or responsible organization. This window will provide many survivors with a renewed opportunity to seek legal action.
Final Amendments Offer Greater Benefits To Survivors
The original bill sent to the Senate looked much different from the bill sent to the governor.
Instead of eliminating the statute, the original House bill extended the statute by 25 years. It also did not include a “look back” window. The bill’s sponsor, New Orleans representative Jason Hughes, initially removed the retroactive language to avoid opposition from the insurance lobby.
However, the Senate chose to amend HB 492 and further expand the rights of Louisiana survivors. Hughes spoke of the bill, saying “House Bill 492 will never cure the pain of victims; however, it gives them a chance to achieve justice and hopefully some sense of closure.”
Gretna City Council Member Discloses Abuse During Testimony
On May 3, 2021, Gretna Councilman Jackie Berthelot testified before state lawmakers in support of HB 492. In his testimony, he disclosed details of his own abuse.
In 1963, Monsignor Lawrence Hecker recruited Berthelot to be an altar boy at St. Joseph Church in Gretna, Louisiana. According to Berthelot, Hecker exploited the situation and began sexually abusing him. Berthelot was a fourth-grader when the abuse began.
Former Priest Lawrence Hecker Allegedly Abused Multiple Children
Berthelot was just one of Hecker’s victims in the New Orleans Archdiocese’s parishioners. Allegations against him span from the late 1960s into the 1970s.
According to at least one clergy abuse lawsuit, Lawrence Hecker abused “countless” children during his time as a priest. Additionally, his abusive behavior allegedly led to the archdiocese paying several priest abuse settlements. The lawsuit against Hecker is currently paused amid the archdiocese’s bankruptcy proceedings.
In 2002, the archdiocese removed Hecker from ministry. But, the reason for his removal was not made public until 2018.
Survivor Testimonies Inspire Legislative Action
Berthelot waited several decades before he came forward with his story. In his testimony, Berthelot explained his reluctance is a good example of why the bill is so necessary.
It can take years for child sexual abuse survivors to process their trauma. Under current Louisiana legal deadlines, many survivors must file a lawsuit before they are ready or risk forfeiting their right to take legal action.
“It took me 50 years to admit to anyone what happened to me…These things, when you’re in our situation, you suppress them and then you get married or your life changes and they come back. It’s a life sentence. It’s a life sentence that I feel that I will serve.”
HB 492 will give Berthelot and other survivors a renewed chance at justice. It will also allow future victims the opportunity to seek legal action when they are ready.
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Legiscan. (N.D.) LA HB492 | 2021 | Regular Session. Retrieved June 9, 2021.
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Vargas, R.A. (2021, May 3). Gretna councilman says he’s victim of notorious clergy abuser at dramatic legislative hearing. Nola.com.
Vargas, R.A. (2021, May 11). Bill giving some child sex abuse victims more time to sue passes Louisiana House. Nola.com.
Vargas, R.A. (2021, June 10). Louisiana Legislature passes bill removing filing deadlines for child sex abuse lawsuits. Nola.com.
Welty, C. (2021, May 3). Gretna Councilman allegedly abused by priest as a kid. WGNO.
(2021, May 25). Senate committee votes to eliminate statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims. KATC.
(2021, June 15). Louisiana will give child victims more time to file lawsuits. The Associated Press.