SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a blow to Catholic dioceses, schools and nonprofit youth-serving agencies in California, the state Senate narrowly passed a bill, S.B. 131, that would lift the statute of limitations on historic child sexual-abuse cases for one year.
The legislation allows victims to again sue the employers of the alleged perpetrators, and a range of religious and private colleges and universities will likely face a fresh round of lawsuits regarding allegations that may date back 40 years.
Church leaders in the Golden State mounted an intense effort to defeat the bill, which now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown, who must act on it by Oct. 13. Opponents of the measure are expected to press their case that the bill unfairly opens a window for a flood of alleged victims to sue private and religious nonprofits and schools, while excluding victims alleging abuse in public schools.
Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, would not predict the likely response of Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian.
“Our hope and expectation is that the governor would see the wisdom of our position and veto the bill,” Dolejsi told the Register.
S.B. 131 would allow victims, who turned 26 before 2003 but failed to file a lawsuit during the revival window authorized by the state Legislature in 2003, a second opportunity to file during 2014 — and potentially longer than that, depending on how the law is interpreted.
The bill specifically exempts public schools and other government institutions from lawsuits. It also exempts the actual perpetrators of the abuse from civil action in some cases, while leaving their employers vulnerable.
‘Lack of Equity’
The Catholic dioceses in California, along with private youth-oriented organizations like the YMCA and USA Swim, have been among the strongest opponents of the proposed legislation. They have raised concerns about the equity of legislation that excludes an entire group of victims.
“The sole basis for our opposition was the lack of equity,” said Ron Reynolds, the executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, which represents diocesan schools in the state, among other organizations.
“Our message is that a bill that holds one employer culpable and another employer not culpable, and affords redress for one group but not another for precisely the same cause of action, makes a mockery of the principle of equal protection under the law.”
Spokesmen for the Church have also sounded the alarm that a fresh attempt to lift the statute of limitations on abuse cases could force bankruptcy proceedings for vulnerable dioceses and the closure of Catholic schools.
Even before the Senate passed the bill, Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire told Fox News that the expected settlement for four abuse cases would likely total $7-$10 million, “on top of about $18 million already paid to victims.”
He signaled that the diocese might be forced to enter federal bankruptcy court.
“It’s just that we do not have any funds for these future lawsuits,” said Bishop Blaire.
More than a decade ago, state lawmakers passed a similar bill, S.B. 1779, which was presented as a one-time window for all time-barred claims against employers to move forward.
That bill allowed victims involved in historic cases to file suit within a one-year period. Thus, during 2003, more than 1,000 victims sued the Catholic Church and others, resulting in an estimated $1.2 billion in settlements.
Church attorneys assert that their clients complied responsibly with the earlier bill’s provisions, with the understanding that the statute of limitations would not be lifted again for historic cases.
“Insurance policies were surrendered back to carriers, property was mortgaged or sold, and loans were incurred to fund these settlements,” stated John Norwood, a lobbyist for the California Council of Nonprofit Organizations, in a May 2013 letter to state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who introduced the bill.
“Retroactively reopening these claims subjects these defendants to double jeopardy and violates the promise of S.B. 1779, that the window for such latent claims would be closed at the end of 2003,” said Norwood in the letter, which was made available to the Register.
The 2013 bill, which would again lift the statute of limitations, passed the Senate by just one vote, with a number of senators abstaining. It marked a year of fresh public scrutiny of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ scandalous legacy of clergy sexual abuse dating back decades.
After the archdiocese complied with the terms of a 2007 court settlement and released the personnel files of troubled priests, the Los Angeles Times published a series of stories that made national headlines. On Sept. 9, The Associated Press reported that “at least a half dozen more releases are expected in the coming weeks, as religious orders comply with the final terms of a 2007 settlement with hundreds of clergy-abuse victims in Los Angeles.”
The latest round of media coverage will likely fuel skepticism about Catholic opposition to the legislation awaiting Brown’s signature. But over the past year, the Los Angeles public-school system has generated its own scandals, and critics of Sen. Beal’s bill argue that it has unjustly ignored the needs of victims molested at public schools before 2008.
In 2012, disclosures of alleged sexual misconduct led the Los Angeles School District superintendent to remove the entire staff of Miramonte Elementary School, where two teachers were arrested for lewd acts involving students.
Subsequently, a judge approved settlements for 61 alleged victims. But when state lawmakers introduced legislation designed to strengthen disciplinary actions against public-school teachers with credible accusations of sexual abuse, The Sacramento Bee reported that the bill died in committee with intense opposition from the California Teachers Association, a powerful union.
“With Latino children comprising the majority of K-12 public-school students in California, this is an unacceptable double standard,” stated Victor Garza and Rose Amador of the La Raza Roundtable de California, in an August 2013 op-ed for the Capitol Weekly, which covers state legislative issues.
“Until S.B. 131 is amended by Sen. Beall to allow public-sector victims access to the courts under the same terms and conditions as private victims, we believe anyone concerned about fairness should oppose this bill.”
Focus on Gov. Brown
For now, groups opposing the bill, such as the California Association of Private School Organizations, are shifting their focus to the governor’s office, seeking an 11th-hour reprieve that will prevent the passage of legislation that could force the closure of private schools that lack adequate insurance to cover settlements for historic cases.
“The bill could subject any school to the possibility of closure, if a sizable judgment is returned,” said Reynolds of the California Association of Private Schools.
“We are talking about cases of delayed discovery, where a person who was a victim only discovered that his or her suffering, such as alcoholism, was caused by past abuse.”
Noted Reynolds, “The claims that are brought may involve decades-old events, where insurance policies or companies no longer exist, and witnesses can’t be identified or are no longer alive.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.