The California state legislature is expected to consider legislation as early as mid-August that could cost the Catholic Church millions.
Earlier this year, Sen. Jim Beall proposed SB 131, which would lift the civil statute of limitations for claims involving childhood sexual abuse. Currently, victims have until their 26th birthday to come forward with sexual abuse claims. If the bill became law, victims of any age would have a one-year window in 2014 in which to bring forward claims of sexual abuse. The bill applies to private institutions, but not public schools or governments. The state senate passed the measure May 29, and the Assembly Appropriations Committee could take up the bill this month.
“The bill gives victims more time to recognize the psychological trauma that is linked to their childhood abuse and take action to gain a measure of justice,” Beall, who did not return calls requesting comment, said in a May press release. He called the statute of limitations on civil claims “antiquated.”
Victims should “have their day in court,” he said in a June 19 statement. “I believe these survivors deserve that opportunity because the law should work to help the victims instead of protecting pedophiles who sexually exploited them.”
The California Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s Catholic bishops in matters concerning public policy, pointed out that the proposed legislation doesn’t address the needs of the 92 percent of students who attend public school.
“The overwhelming majority of victims, most of whom were abused in public school, will never get their day in court,” the California Catholic Conference said in a June 12 statement. Victims would not be able to sue public schools and local governments in cases that took place before 2009, according to the conference.
“That fundamental unfairness is fueling opposition to this bill,” Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told Our Sunday Visitor. SB 131, he said, does not apply to public schools, public agencies or even to the abuser.
“It only allows suits to go forward against organizations that appear well-heeled or well-insured — and never against the perpetrator himself,” Eckery said. SB 131 doesn’t increase penalties against the perpetrator either. “The purpose of the statute of limitations is to encourage people to come forward when evidence and documents are fresh,” he said.
Eckery acknowledged that victims often have a difficult time coming forward after being abused. He said most plaintiffs — especially children — are truthful in their claims.
“There are two different issues: this piece of legislation and dealing with the cloud of sexual abuse,” Eckery said, explaining that the Church has a problem with SB 131, but is not skirting its responsibility for past abuses. “It’s not a matter of defending ourselves.”
SB 131 is similar to legislation enacted more than 10 years ago in California. In 2002, Sen. John Burton of San Francisco sponsored SB 1779, which allowed plaintiffs to file civil claims regardless of when the abuse occurred. Victims in the state could make claims throughout 2003. Plaintiffs filed nearly 1,000 civil actions that year and the Catholic Church settled cases for $1.2 billion.
“Logic says most of the abuse cases were taken care of, but there could always be others,” Eckery said. “But opening it up every 10 years doesn’t make sense.”
Around 50 plaintiffs who had not made a “causal connection between childhood abuse and problems as an adult” filed suits after the 2003 window expired, according to the Senate Rules Committee. The court ruled their claims were past the statute of limitations.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which received about 500 of the claims against dioceses in California, agreed to pay victims a total of $660 million in 2007. Nearly a third of those cases involved allegations against priests who had died, and some dated back 70 years.
“Most of the dioceses gave up their insurance or exhausted their policies because they thought there were no more cases out there,” Eckery said. The Church did not oppose the 2003 window, he said, because it recognized a need to address sexual abuse claims.
The Diocese of San Diego and the Diocese of San Bernardino settled 144 cases of sexual abuse for $198.1 million. The victims claimed incidents of abuse took place between 1938 to 1993.
“Dioceses throughout California have worked to atone for past mistakes and have implemented robust procedures to ensure children and young people are as safe as we can make them,” Diocese of Orange Bishop Kevin Vann wrote in a recent column in The Orange County Catholic, the diocese’s official newspaper.
“They have also pressed for changes in law and society to ensure children and your people are better protected,” he wrote. “SB 131 does little to help advance this critical work.”
The California Association of Private School Organizations, the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, the California State Alliance of YMCA’s, the California Council of Non-Profit Organizations as well as other private, nonprofit and community groups oppose SB 131.
“This legislation puts the social services and educational work of the Church at risk and unjustly discriminates against Catholic schools and other private employers,” Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez said in his June 21 column in The Tidings, the archdiocesan newspaper.
A letter-writing campaign opposing SB 131 is underway at California parishes. Michelle Morrison, director of religious education at St. Timothy Parish in Los Angeles, is heading the effort. The parish’s pastor, Father Paul Vigil, initiated his parish’s effort against the legislation. The parish sent out a kit including a pulpit announcement and a letter to submit to their senator. Four other parishes have invited Morrison and two other staff members to collect signatures at Sunday Masses. So far, they’ve collected nearly 2,000 signed letters and faxed them to the appropriate legislators. They have encountered little opposition, she said.
“It does make a difference,” Morrison said. “I have to believe our work — the work of all of these organizations — will not be in vain.”
J.D. Long-Garcia is the editor of The Catholic Sun in Arizona.