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According to the California governor, the legislation — which was directed primarily against Catholic institutions — ‘is simply too open-ended and unfair.’
BY AL DONNER
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 12 vetoed bill S.B. 131, a measure that would have re-established a two-class system of sex-abuse lawsuits.
The measure would have exempted public schools from liability for historic sexual-abuse cases involving their employees, while leaving Catholic schools open to new charges.
Brown bluntly criticized the state Legislature for sending him the bill, which would have opened a new one-year window in which people who believed they had suffered sexual abuse years ago but had not sought relief during the legally established statute of limitations could again sue the employing private institutions — predominantly Catholic schools in California.
However, S.B. 131 excluded public institutions from the reach-back provision, an extraordinary instance of unequal treatment of different institutions.
Catholic and other private institutions strongly opposed the bill, but the outcome remained uncertain until Brown handed down his decision on the second-to-last day to address measures passed by the state Legislature in September.
In his veto message, Brown pulled no punches: S.B. 131 “does not change a victim’s ability to sue a perpetrator. This bill also does not change the significant inequity that exists between private and public entities. What this bill does is go back to the only group, i.e., private institutions, that have already been subjected to the unusual ‘one-year revival period’ and makes them, and them alone, subject to suit indefinitely."
“This extraordinary extension of the statute of limitations, which legislators chose not to apply to public institutions, is simply too open-ended and unfair,” Brown said in vetoing the bill.
Selectively Targeting Catholic Institutions
Brown’s message details a decade of legislative and legal efforts targeting Catholic institutions while giving public entities a free pass.
In 2002, S.B. 1779 revived for one year (2003) the opportunity to file claims of sexual abuse that had lapsed because of the standard statute of limitations. As Brown pointed out, “This ‘one-year revival’ of passed claims allowed victims relief, but also set a defined cut-off time for these lapsed claims.”
Brown continued, “In reliance on the clear language and intent of this statute, the private third-party defendants covered by this bill took actions to resolve these legacy claims of victims older than 26,” which is the state standard for pupils to file claims for sexual abuse in their school years.
In his veto, Brown pointed out that more than “1,000 claims were filed against the Catholic Church alone, some involving alleged abuse as far back as the 1930s. By 2007, the Catholic Church in California had paid out more than $1.2 billion to settle the claims filed during this one-year revival period,” with other non-government entities paying many other claims.
“For the public third parties covered by this bill, however, a very different result occurred,” Brown noted. The governor said that, “due to a drafting error, the California Supreme Court held in 2007 that S.B. 1779 did not actually apply to public or governmental agencies. So, unlike private institutions, public schools and government entities were shielded from the one-year revival of lapsed claims. As a result, the similarly situated victims of these entities were not accorded the remedies of S.B. 1997.”
The Catholic community mounted a strong effort to head off S.B. 131, but the measure received key support from trial lawyers, many of whom had gained huge settlements in the 2003 open window.
Abuse in Public Schools
While Catholic institutions have received extraordinary news coverage for sexual abuses that occurred in the past, public institutions have largely escaped media attention.
Only in the last few years has there been regular reporting of sexual-abuse charges in public schools.
This month, the Los Angeles Unified School District reported that 237 educators had been fired or resigned since the start of 2012 over allegations involving a range of misconduct.
One of the most visible involves the Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angles, where the entire staff was transferred after two teachers were accused of engaging in lewd acts with students.
In greater San Francisco, media in the last year have reported sex-abuse accusations against public-school employees in more than half a dozen school districts.
After Brown’s veto, Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and president of the California Catholic Conference (CCC), said in a statement, “We are grateful that Gov. Brown chose to veto S.B. 131. It was unfair to the vast majority of victims and unfair to all private and nonprofit organizations.
“The fact S.B. 131 discriminated against victims clearly played a major role in prompting a veto, but at the same time, we hope the way the Catholic Church in California has responded to the abuse crisis over the last 10 years and ‘walked the walk’ with respect to protecting young people and reporting allegations to law enforcement helped play a role, too.”
Bishop Wilkerson said, “The Church’s reaction has gone way beyond settling more than 1,000 cases and paying $1.2 billion in settlements.
“It’s changed how we operate as a Church. Millions of children and tens of thousands of Church workers have received ‘safe environment’ training to learn how to keep children safe and spot potential abuse. Hundreds of thousands of workers and volunteers have been fingerprinted and background-checked to screen them for red flags in their background. We continue to provide counseling to anyone who comes forward, and we actively work with law enforcement to report allegations immediately and suspend anybody, clergy or otherwise, suspected of abuse.”
Church leaders and educators had feared that S.B. 131, if enacted, would devastate Catholic schools financially.
In September, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton issued a pastoral letter warning that the diocese might have to file for bankruptcy if it was saddled with many additional sex-abuse claims. With just 35 parishes, the small diocese already had paid out nearly $20 million to settle such claims.
One challenge inherent in efforts to lift the statute of limitations is that old claims frequently cannot be resolved with normal interrogation and witness testimony. Accusations that date back decades often find that involved parties have died or forgotten events, and records may no longer exist.
Brown’s Mixed Record
To many Catholics, Brown does not always appear to be the moderating force against legislative measures the Church opposes.
A week earlier, he signed into law two bills sought by Planned Parenthood that will allow nurse practitioners to perform abortions and reduce the building standards for abortion businesses.
On behalf of the California bishops, Bishop Wilkerson reacted by stating, “We are disappointed that Gov. Brown has signed A.B. 154 and A.B. 980, which together dramatically increase the availability of abortion in California — the state in which 12% of Americans reside, but 29% of all the nation’s abortions occur.
“We oppose abortion, and until it becomes illegal, we will oppose measures which expand it — especially when it is at the expense of the girls and women undergoing the procedure.
“This change in the law will effectively create a two-tier health system. Physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives — with eight week’s training — can now perform first-trimester abortions in primary-care clinics not designed for surgery. Most of their clients will be women and girls who are poor, whereas women and girls with means will seek out physicians with surgical skills and hospital-admitting privileges for their abortions.”
Under another new law signed this year by Brown, S.B. 274, a child now can also have more parents than one father and one mother. Brown had vetoed a similar bill in 2012. The new law, authored by homosexual-rights activist and state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, will allow courts to name a third parent if they think that not doing so would be detrimental to the welfare of a child.
The push for S.B. 274 law grew out of a 2011 court case about a same-sex female couple. While they were in a temporary separation, one partner had an affair with a male that resulted in the birth of a child. When the same-sex couple got back together, the non-biological partner was not recognized as a parent.
Brown also has approved a variety of measures to help immigrants, including one to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain California driver’s licenses (A.B. 60), while vetoing another that would allow them to serve on juries.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles praised the governor for signing the driving bill. “Driving is one of the basic necessities of life, so this new law is going to make a big difference for millions of people in their everyday lives. It will make it easier for them to get to work, to go to school, to go the store, to get to church. This bill will make our families, our communities and our economy stronger.”
Brown also signed A.B. 10, which will raise California’s minimum wage from the current $8 an hour to $10 in 2016. Catholic bishops have supported a responsible living wage.
Earlier this year, Brown vetoed A.B. 926, which would have allowed women to be paid for selling their eggs to stem-cell researchers.
But he also signed A.B. 1266, which will allow children to pick their own sexual identities, for use of restrooms and in sports programs and similar activities.
Few observers argue with the view that Brown is extraordinarily difficult to pigeonhole.
Raised in a strong Irish-Catholic Democratic family in San Francisco, Brown was introduced to politics early, through his father, Pat Brown, first attorney general of California and then governor.
The junior Brown left Santa Clara University after his first year and entered the Jesuit novitiate. He left after several years, completing his undergraduate work at the University of California-Berkeley and Yale Law School.
Brown has been in politics most of his adult life. He was elected California governor in 1974. He served two terms and made several unsuccessful runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. During his adult life, he has been elected as a Los Angeles community college trustee, the mayor of Oakland and California attorney general, before winning election to a second stint as California governor in 2010. He is widely expected to win re-election in 2014.
Brown has visibly followed many religious threads, including a period of studying Zen Buddhism in Japan and a month spent with Mother Teresa in India.
Brown has generally retained a connection to his Catholic roots. When he was married, he had a civil ceremony performed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and followed up later that day with a Catholic ceremony. Last May, he attended the ordination of Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, where Brown lives.
Unpredictability is his norm. Brown brings diverse questions and unorthodox perspectives to policy debate. When running for governor in 2010, he campaigned for a major sales and income tax increase at the same time. Normal political theory would brand that a bad idea politically. Yet both Brown and the tax increase won handily in 2010.
Much of the challenge he faces now stems from the complete Democratic dominance in California, both in voter registration and political power. Democrats now have sole control of both houses of the state Legislature, holding more than two-thirds of the seats in each house.
Under the broad Democratic umbrella, some groups have exceptional power in the Legislature, including public-employees unions and homosexual-rights activists.
Steve Glazer was Brown’s 2010 campaign manager and now is a Democratic candidate for the State Assembly in 2014.
“Without question,” Glazer said recently, “he’s been a moderating force against the extremes of his party.”
That is a big job in policy-happy California. Over the years that Brown has been governor, and therefore final arbiter of legislation, he has signed more than 13,000 bills. This year, he signed into law more than 800 bills and vetoed 96.
When the legislative deluge ended Sunday, Oct. 13, Brown’s office posted a photo on Twitter after he had dispatched the final measures. It was a desk with a pen on it and an empty chair behind it.
Employing Latin that the governor first learned from the Jesuits, the tweet said simply: “Festina Lente” (Make haste slowly).
Register correspondent Al Donner writes from California.