LOS ANGELES — Critics say a proposed Calif. bill lifting the statute of limitations on some child sex abuse lawsuits threatens the Catholic Church and its schools, failing to allow suits for similar abuse in public schools.
“The bill itself is just unfair on its face,” Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told CNA June 11.
“Legislation is supposed to protect victims. The only thing (this bill) does is eliminate the statute of limitations for a year and revive a lot of old claims, but it only does so against private organizations.”
Eckery said private schools, organizations like the YMCA, and Catholic dioceses and schools are “concerned about the fact that they’re being singled out.”
The legislation, S.B. 131, passed in the state Senate May 29 by a vote of 21-10. It now heads to the California House of Representatives.
The bill would change the statute of limitations for suits against private schools and private employers who failed to take action against sexual abuse by employees or volunteers. The bill would allow alleged victims younger than 31 to sue employers of abusers. The present age limit for alleged victims is 26 years old.
However, the bill also provides a one-year window for victims older than the age limit to sue alleged negligent employers. This could result in many new lawsuits concerning allegations dismissed after 2003, when the statute of limitations was previously suspended.
That suspension resulted in almost 1,000 claims against the Catholic Church in California, with legal awards totaling to $1.2 billion. Some of these claims dated back to the 1950s.
Eckery said that these claims were paid through insurance policies and sale of property and other assets.
“That insurance coverage doesn’t exist anymore. Most Catholic dioceses aren’t covered anymore. They self-insure, by and large,” he said.
“If there were claims that were resurrected for a third time, you can find situations where dioceses might be forced to close schools. In the case of one of our dioceses, the Diocese of Stockton, they’re worried they might have to file for bankruptcy.”
The proposed law does not apply to public schools or other government agencies that may have been negligent towards abuse allegations.
Bill Donohue of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights was critical of these exemptions.
“People are concerned about the welfare of children, and they should be,” Donohue told CNA/EWTN News June 10. “Therefore, it shouldn’t matter who the abuser is. It shouldn’t make a difference whether it’s a priest, or a postman, or a rabbi or a public school teacher.”
In a June 6 letter to the California Assembly, Donohue said that thousands of allegations of sex abuse in the California public schools are made annually, with action taken in about 800 cases each year.
He pointed to a Los Angeles Unified School District report that found the district often did not notify a teacher credentialing commission when required and sometimes did not report cases in a timely manner.
Donohue asked whether the legislature intends “to cripple the Catholic schools and the great work that the Catholic organizations do, simply because they want to revisit somebody who may have been abused back when JFK was president.”
The bill would not suspend the statute of limitations for claims against individual perpetrators of abuse.
Eckery particularly objected to this provision. “The bill is written so poorly that it doesn’t revive claims against the actual perpetrator,” he said.
“Even if the actual perpetrator has gone to prison and served jail time, but the statute of limitations has run out, the statute of limitations is lifted against his or her employer, but not against the actual perpetrator.” He added that the legislation would give a plaintiff three chances to sue the Church.
Eckery also said the earlier opportunities for the lawsuits helped address the “need for justice” and to bring attention to abuse “so we could fix it.”
“But I think that an unlimited statute of limitations is unfair, because how do you defend yourself?” he said.
“If a claim is 30, 40, 50 years old, all the people who have firsthand knowledge are gone or retired. All of the paperwork is gone, in storage or otherwise destroyed.”
“In this current climate, how could you possibly defend yourself against these kinds of lawsuits?”
He noted that the statute of limitations allows for evidence to be evaluated by a judge and jury. “The passage of time makes that virtually impossible,” he said.
Eckery’s concerns were echoed in a May 31 Wall Street Journal editorial which said the statutes of limitations “protect defendants from miscarriages of justice.”
“Plaintiffs’ attorneys who claim to be seeking justice for victims are merely seeking to line their own pockets by exploiting public sympathies for victims of horrific abuses,” the Wall Street Journal said.
“The ultimate victims of this legal shakedown will be nonprofits in California and the people they serve.”
Other opponents of the bill include the California Association of Private School Organizations, the California State Alliance of YMCAs, the California Police Activities league, the California Council of Nonprofit Organization and other religious organizations and private schools, the Los Angeles archdiocese’s newspaper The Tidings reports.