SB 131: A travesty of justice for sexual abuse victims
SB 131 by state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, is a measure now on Gov. Brown's desk that opens a one-year window to eliminate the statute of limitations for private employers accused of civil liability in sexual abuse cases. It proposes to deal — once and for all — with all past claims against private employers.
If that sounds familiar, it is because the Legislature already did the same thing in 2002.
It was at the height of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church when in 2002 the California legislature passed a measure (SB 1779 — Burton) that would allow all victims — in public or private institutions — to sue employers for failure to take proper measures to stop the abuser. Any case — even decades old — was allowed to go forward during the 2003 one-year window.
The inclusion of public entities was quickly jettisoned because of a technical error in drafting the bill. Private entities, however, especially the Catholic Church, became the unrelenting focus of lawsuits.
The dioceses of California chose not to oppose SB 1779.
Trial attorneys quickly arranged for advertisements, stood outside Catholic schools soliciting clients and networked to find as many cases as possible. Their search was intense, well-publicized and uncompromising.
By 2007, dioceses had settled more than 1,000 cases in California and the Church had paid more than $1.2 billion in restitution. With the assurance than SB 1779 was a one-year revival of claims designed to include all cases, dioceses curtailed spending, borrowed funds, exhausted and surrendered insurance policies and sold assets to pay those settlements. (Less than half of the settlements went to victims; most went to attorneys for fees and expenses.)
The U.S. Bishops also took far-reaching steps in 2002 — redesigning employment, vocation and volunteer screening systems, beginning extensive training for adults and age-appropriate awareness programs for children and hiring an outside firm to audit dioceses for compliance annually.
The Charter for the Protection of Children remains in effect today making the Catholic Church and its schools probably the safest environment for children in the nation. Annual Reports reaffirm the Church's resolve and effectiveness of its programs. In fact, law enforcement agencies in California recommend the protection procedures in the Church as a model for other organizations to follow.
But in spite of a bill enacted in 2008 to treat all victims equally in the future (SB 640 — Simitian), the legislature still has not successfully addressed the exclusion of victims in public institutions in the past. (SB 640 did not waive the Government Tort Claims Act for past claims — very much like SB 1779 failed to do in 2002.)
However, the effort to re-target private employers — legislatively and in the courts — has barely eased.
Finally, in 2012 the California Supreme Court ruled that the intent of the legislature in SB 1779 was clear — allow a one-year window to file lawsuits no matter how long ago the abuse occurred (Quarry v. Doe).
Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye wrote, "Although we are unreservedly sympathetic to the plight of persons who were subjected to childhood sexual abuse, we note that the pre-existing limitations period, along with the one-year revival period ... afford victims a very considerable time following the abuse in which to come to maturity, or even middle age, and discover the claim."
SB 131 would open another one-year window like that of 2003 and would negate the Supreme Court's ruling in Quarry. And, in effect, SB 131 would eliminate the statute of limitations for civil liability both prospectively and retrospectively.
It has not had an easy time.
Leaders in the Assembly and Senate have politicked fiercely to pass the bill and, even though Democrats hold a super-majority, have struggled to advance it at every step of the process.
SB 131 failed once in an Assembly committee only to be granted reconsideration; cleared the Senate by only one vote (twice because of the need to clarify a technical amendment); and found Democrats joining with Republicans in opposition.
It is now on the governor's desk because of a tenacious push and parliamentary maneuvering by the leaders of the Assembly and Senate.
Yet, even now, opposition continues to grow. Along with the California Catholic Conference, organizations opposing SB 131 include La Raza Roundtable de California, the YMCA/YWCA, the California Association of Private School Organizations, the California Council of Nonprofit Organizations, the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities and a growing list of community groups, youth-service organizations, religious organizations and private schools.
Opponents of SB 131 point out that:
• The bill does nothing for the overwhelming majority of victims. If SB 131 is signed, there is no incentive for the Legislature to instead enact a bill that helps ALL victims.
• SB 131 is bad public policy. It discriminates against victims who were abused in public schools and it discriminates against private and non-profit employers.
• Repeatedly revising the statute of limitations makes a mockery of justice and equity while creating a climate of unpredictable, substantial risk for private youth-serving organizations in California.
La Raza Roundtable put it this way in its letter of opposition: "There are not two classes of victims; there should not be two classes of justice."
Ask the Governor to veto SB 131 by visiting www.cacatholic.org or contact the California Catholic Conference for more information.
(Steve Pehanich is director of advocacy and education at the California Catholic Conference, www.cacatholic.org.)
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