This week, the state Assembly will take up an important measure by state Senator Jim Beall that would assist victims of sexual abuse in their pursuit of justice. In 2002, following the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the California Legislature unanimously approved a bill by then-state Senator John Burton to extend the statute of limitations for childhood victims of sexual abuse.
It was an important step to hold the Church and other organizations accountable for their role in covering up molestation cases. However, a recent California Supreme Court decision found that some victims weren’t covered by the bill and therefore were subject to the old statute of limitations. In his dissenting opinion, California Supreme Court Judge Goodwin Liu encouraged the legislature to fix the problem.
“Today’s unduly narrow reading of the statute may prompt the Legislature again to provide a correction that affirms the statute’s remedial purpose,” he wrote.
SB 131, which is extremely limited in scope, does just that. For just one year, from January 1, 2014 to January 1, 2015, victims that were barred by the Quarry v. Doe 1 ruling would be able to seek justice for childhood abuse cases.
If you’re a persistent devil’s advocate like me, you’re probably wondering: why didn’t these victims file their claims sooner?
I posed that question to my friend Eileen King, an expert on child abuse and the executive director of Child Justice, an outstanding nonprofit organization that advocates for abused, neglected and at-risk children. She explained that it can take time for victims to come forward, even as adults.
“I think the legislation is needed: many sexual abuse survivors delay disclosure and in fact, most sexual abuse is not reported or investigated. Often the perpetrator has threatened or cajoled the child into silence. The survivor may feel enormous shame, conflicts of affection and loyalty, or may feel pressure to ‘forgive and forget’ - especially when the perpetrator is a minister, priest, rabbi, or counselor who the survivor has held in awe and for whom he/she still feels strong ties of affection or obedience.”
Makes sense. So, why is the passage of SB 131 in doubt?
Money. Organizations that harbored abusers and covered up their crimes are trying to defeat SB 131. The bill holds these organizations civilly liable for their role in sexual abuse. They could be forced to payout major damages, something they’re not willing to do. They see only dollar signs.
These organizations would rather pay Sacramento lobbyists the money than sexual abuse victims. They’ve already spent a quarter of a million dollars to hire five of the best lobbying firms in Sacramento to defeat the bill.
According to the Sacramento Bee, “The newly created California Council of Nonprofit Organizations poured $258,000 into fighting the bill in the first six months of this year. The California Council, an umbrella organization of the California Catholic Conference, hired five lobbying firms, including heavyweight Lang Hansen O’Malley and Miller Governmental Relations.”
These high-priced lobbyists have distorted the facts and misled legislators about the bill. Unfortunately, in what can only be described as a severe case of Sacramento group-think, Republican legislators have been listening to these bad arguments.
One red herring raised by the hired guns: SB 131 is unfair because it does not revive cases against perpetrators or public entities. It targets private institutions only.
So what! That’s not a reason to oppose SB 131. In other words, we shouldn’t help one group of victims unless we can help every victim of sexual abuse. It’s absurd. If Republicans applied the same principle to taxes and government spending, they’d never support a tax break or spending cut.
Republican legislators are reportedly considering an amendment to add public institutions to the bill. Great, by all means, go for it. But, if the amendment fails, Assembly Republicans still have an obligation to back this bill because it helps some victims. Republicans shouldn’t use a failed procedural vote as an excuse to stand in the way of justice for victims of private organizations.
Let’s not forget: private institutions, especially the Catholic Church, have a track record of protecting abusers and covering up their criminal activities. There’s a valid reason to hold them to a higher legal threshold. Take this November 1989 memo to then Archbishop Roger Mahony, in which a monsignor cites the statute of limitations as a key influence on his decision-making for how to handle a known abuser.
“The young boy involved is now about eighteen, so Kevin should certainly not return for another two years by which time the period for filing law suits will have passed,” the monsignor wrote.
There are other problems with the “public-private equal treatment argument.” Public institutions are subject to an entirely different statutory scheme than private institutions. The public also has more means of holding these institutions accountable- from public records requests to the ballot box. Public entities also don’t have a history protecting abusers.
Some Republicans might also mistakenly believe this bill encourages lawsuits. This bill won’t change the legal standards or burden of proof. Victims of abuse still have to prove their claims in court. And it’s not easy to fight a big institution when millions of dollars are at stake.
King tells me that big institutions will do everything possible to embarrass and discredit abuse victims.
“In fact, very few victims ever take the steps to sue a large institution, especially one that is notorious for scorched-earth litigation like the Catholic Church,” she said. “Moreover, the survivor who sues can expect that the opposition will try to find and expose every sensitive detail of his or her life: mental health or substance abuse problems, sexual orientation or relationships, work history, family problems, criminal records.
“Anything and everything will be used to destroy the survivor’s credibility: they will be put on trial,” King, an expert on child abuse, said.
Surprisingly, to date, just two Republican legislators have supported SB 131, state Senator Mark Wyland and Assemblyman Eric Linder. Let’s hope a few more Assembly Republicans join Linder and Wyland in fighting for victims of sexual abuse, when SB 131 comes to the Assembly floor for a vote.