A decision by California Gov. Jerry Brown Oct. 12 was a glimmer of legislative good news in the bleak landscape that is the ongoing clergy sex abuse crisis. Presented with SB 131 — a bill proposing another one-year suspension of California’s statute of limitations that would allow victims of child sexual abuse to sue the Church regardless of how much time had passed since the event — Brown invoked his veto power and sent the bill back to the state Senate.
Because the bill targeted only private institutions — turning a blind eye to the many more cases of abuse reported in public institutions — many saw the bill for what it was: categorically anti-Catholic. After it was proposed, the California Catholic Conference and state bishops came out strongly against it. Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez sent a letter to all parishioners of the archdiocese asking that they urge their Assembly members and senators to vote “no” to the bill.
“SB-131 fails to protect all victims of childhood sexual abuse, discriminates against Catholic schools and other private employers, and puts the Church’s social services and educational mission at risk,” he said. When the measure passed in September, the decision of whether or not it was to become law was left to Brown.
To the surprise of many, the governor agreed with the Church’s position. After reviewing the reasons for a statute of limitations, he said the issue comes down to one of “fairness.”
“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,” he wrote. “This extraordinary extension of the statute of limitations, which legislators chose not to apply to public institutions, is simply too open-ended and unfair.”
Unfair because it targets Catholics, and unfair because it unjustly overlooked the many victims of child sexual abuse in public institutions. Even had the bill become law, those victims would have had no options for legal action.
The Church has already paid billions in damages for the actions of priest abusers and those involved in covering up their actions. The healing of victims should be a top priority, and the Church must never lose sight of the innocent children harmed by those operating in its name.
The Church in California, however, already faced the devastating effects of a suspended sex abuse statute of limitations in 2003. The fallout was $1.2 billion spent by the Church in California as a result of about 1,000 civil action cases filed during 2003. Had the new bill been signed into law, the additional fallout would have had a harmful effect on the Church’s ministries, schools and social services, affecting the entire California community, especially those most in need.
In addition to California, several other states have battled similar legislative efforts and in some cases the Church prevailed. A similar case is underway in Pennsylvania, where a bill has been proposed that would open a two-year window for victims of sexual abuse to file new cases or revive past ones.
Advocating against these efforts is a tricky and sometimes uncomfortable line for the Church to walk. Some may see it as defending the indefensible, and there’s no doubt acts of sexual abuse by clergy are indefensible. The Church is, and should always be, committed to justice — especially in the case of abuse victims. But in the case of the already hemorrhaging Church in California, Gov. Brown got it right.