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Legislation Would Re-Open Sexual Abuse Claims Yet Again

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April 19, 2018

The abuse of a minor is a horrific crime.  The failure of institutions, including the Church, to protect children has meant broken lives and broken promises. 

“We hear these children and their cries of pain,” said Pope Francis in 2016.  “It is a sin that shames us. We regret this deeply and we beg forgiveness.”

The Church in the United States has not only recognized its failure but it continues to go to great lengths to swiftly and openly address the harm caused by some of its members and see that it never happens again.

Nevertheless, for some California lawmakers acting on behalf of the trial lawyers, that is not enough.  They want to permit time-barred claims once more despite already doing so in 2002.

In the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, California lawmakers voted in 2002 to remove the statute of limitations on claims of sexual abuse for one year.  The Church did not oppose the legislation. 

In the next calendar year, any person ever harmed by a priest, religious or other person employed by the Church and other institutions was able to file a lawsuit against the Church.  Some of the resulting claims involved alleged abuse that dated back as far as the 1930s. 

During the year 2003, more than 1,000 plaintiffs brought cases and the Church eventually paid more than $1.5 billion in restitution resulting in loss of insurance policies and bankruptcy.  And the Church continues to work with all victims no matter when the abuse took place.

Ten years later, in 2013, lawmakers tried to eliminate the statute of limitations again – but only for private institutions.  (See below.)

In a far-reaching veto message of that bill, Governor Jerry Brown characterized the need for statutes of limitation as “a universal practice … of fairness” and pointed out that the 2013 attempt to re-open liability was aimed at the only group that had already had claims revived: private institutions.

Having statutes of limitation, as the Governor explained in his veto message, has been a fixture of law since the days of Rome for a very basic reason:  After a long period of time, memories fade, people die and evidence may be lost, making it nearly impossible for an organization to defend itself. 

Now, just five years later, AB 3120 Damages: childhood sexual assault: statute of limitations by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzales-Fletcher (D-San Diego) would not only reopen all old claims going backward, it would also permanently eliminate any statute of limitations for institutions into the future, forever.  It would also eliminate the existing procedural protection that a plaintiff obtain a certificate of merit to show reasonable cause before proceeding with a claim and mandate treble damages.

Unlike the bill vetoed in 2013, AB 3120 does at least also apply to local governments and school districts. The 2002 revival was intended to apply to both public and private institutions but a 2007 court case exempted public entities, so this bill would partially address the discrepancy.   But notably, there is nothing in AB 3120 that would revive or extend claims involving abuse perpetrated by employees of the State of California including the University of California, Cal State University and Court systems , which is yet another significant unfairness of this bill.

The California Catholic Conference is opposing AB 3120 unless amended. 

As explained in a letter to Assembly Member Gonzales-Fletcher, the Conference is urging that the retroactivity not apply to claims before 2003 because those cases – which are now at a minimum nearly two decades old – have already had two prior opportunities to file. 

AB 3120 should also allow claims against the State.  Why would the Legislature exempt victims harmed by employees of state agencies from the same remedies already given to those in private institutions?  It creates two classes of victim for no reason. 

Finally, the Conference is proposing that the bill expand to age 35 the time when a plaintiff can file a claim and it should retain the requirement to obtain a certificate of merit.   Frivolous, unfounded claims benefit no one.

AB 3120 would essentially open civil liability for a third time for private institutions.  Even in his 2013 veto message Governor Brown pointed out that “[t]his extraordinary extension of the statute of limitations…is simply too open-ended and unfair.”

In addition to settling the claims opened in 2003, the Church introduced wide-reaching, effective and monitored programs to guarantee the protection of children in the Catholic Church and strive for forgiveness and healing.  All volunteers and staff who work with children undergo are fingerprinted and undergo background checks, training programs help people recognize the signs of abuse, and new claims are dealt with swiftly with a focus on the victim.

For more information, visit our Protecting Our Children page.  There you will also find a list of contacts in each diocese of California who can answer questions.