California Catholics praise sex abuse bill veto

California Catholic officials are expressing their gratitude and relief after California Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 12 killed a proposed state law that would have made the Catholic Church and other private entities subject to lawsuits for a one-year window in 2014 from anyone claiming past allegations of sexual abuse. The bill also would have extended the state’s statute of limitations on such suits from three years to five.

“There comes a time when an individual or an organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and are not subject to further lawsuits,” Brown said in a statement. “With the passage of time, evidence may be lost or disposed of, memories fade, and witnesses move away or die. ... This extraordinary extension of the statute of limitations, which legislators chose not to apply to public institutions, is simply too open-ended and unfair.”

Once the governor’s decision was made public, Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and president of the California Catholic Conference, released a statement on the veto of the bill, which had been proposed by Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose).

“We are grateful that Gov. Brown chose to veto SB 131. It was unfair to the vast majority of victims and unfair to all private and nonprofit organizations,” the bishop said. “The fact SB 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.”

Unfair bill

The veto marks an end to an ongoing battle, Ned Dolejsi, executive director for the conference, told Our Sunday Visitor.

“My first thoughts were of gratitude and relief,” he said. “It’s been a long struggle so we were pleased with the governor’s veto for sure, and particularly pleased with his veto message, which affirmed all policy arguments we raised over the last year and a half.”

The bill would have reopened the statute of limitations against private employers for child sex abuse for a period of one year, but would have forbidden lawsuits against public schools, other government agencies and the actual perpetrator of the abuse. Currently, victims have until they reach age 26 to come forward.

The focus on private institutions, such as the Church, private colleges and universities, and nonprofits, marked a discrimination against sexual abuse victims, Catholic conference officials said.

Kevin Eckery, conference spokesman, pointed out that it wasn’t just the Church who opposed the measure, but an entire coalition that would have been affected by the bill.

“We were able to point out to the legislature that this excluded any victim of sexual abuse with a public school education or anyone involved in government,” he said. “The bill created two different systems of justice, where if you were less lucky or simply had been educated in public school (or) public day care, that your pain and suffering was somehow not under the law.”

Long-lasting effects

Jerry Brown

The Church in California knows from experience that it missed a narrow blow. In 2002, state legislature passed SB 1779, which opened up a one-year window for sexual abuse cases against both private and public entities. Due to a drafting error, the measure didn’t apply to public or governmental agencies, but only to private entities.

The law allowed for all alleged victims older than 26 to sue private institutions, including the Catholic Church, for all of 2003.

“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. Other private and nonprofit employers were sued and paid out as well,” Brown wrote in his veto message.

Ensuring justice

Beall, the bill’s sponsor, expressed his disappointment in a statement on his website.

“I believe the veto is bad public policy,” Beall wrote. “It is a retreat in the fight to protect our children. The original law that SB 131 was based on has been weakened. SB 131 may have died, but the cause to stop childhood sexual abuse and those who cover it up does not end today.’’

From the Church’s perspective, the work to protect children within the Church won’t ever be one that has limitations, Dolejsi said.

“At this point, the direction is clear we must do everything in our power to protect children, for every leader and every parishioner and everybody there to make certain of the protection of children and we have learned well from our mistakes in the past,” he said. “We have a responsibility for being the healing presence of Christ in the world, a special place in the Gospel. For victims ... we find must find a way to respond; but what SB 131 precluded is the response would not be held in court and would be held in fairly significant group settlements.”

Meanwhile, the 2002 law still affects the Church. The Diocese of San Diego was among those that filed for bankruptcy as a result of the measure, although the diocese eventually worked its way off of the financial cliff.

“There certainly are some dioceses that might still file bankruptcy because of the impacts of settlements,” Eckery said. “There is always concern that resources could be taken from important ministries and used for settlements. The issue isn’t that the victims aren’t deserving of settlements. It’s, ‘What’s the right way?’ and, ‘How do you make sure justice is done for everybody?’”

Anna Maria Basquez writes from Colorado.