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Calif. Governor Vetoes ‘Unfair’ Abuse Lawsuit Bill

Ohad Ben-Yoseph

Catholic News Agency - published on 10/16/13

Governor Jerry Brown has vetoed a controversial bill that would have allowed more sexual abuse charges against Catholic schools, while exempting public schools where abuse took place.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a controversial bill that would have allowed more decades-old sexual abuse charges against Catholic schools and other non-profit institutions, while exempting public schools where abuse took place.

Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson of Los Angeles, the president of the California Catholic Conference, said the bishops of the state are “grateful” that the bill was vetoed.

“It was unfair to the vast majority of victims and unfair to all private and non-profit organizations,” he said, adding that the bill “discriminated and treated victims unequally” in a way that was “impossible to morally or legally justify.”

The bill would have lifted the statute of limitations on child sex abuse lawsuits against private schools and private employers who failed to take action against sexual abuse by employees or volunteers. It would allow alleged victims younger than 31 to sue employers of abusers, extending present age limit for alleged victims from 26 years old.

However, S.B. 131 specifically exempted public schools and other government institutions from lawsuits.

Critics argued that this was unfair to Catholic and private schools, and that it failed to protect the vast majority – more than 90 percent – of California children who attend public schools.

The Wall Street Journal had criticized the proposed bill as a “nonprofit shakedown” targeting the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and the “political enemies” of the legislature, where Democrats hold a supermajority of seats.

The bill also would have provided a one-year window for victims older than the new age limit to sue alleged negligent employers. This could have resulted in many new lawsuits concerning allegations dismissed after 2003, when the statute of limitations was previously suspended.

That suspension resulted in almost 1,000 claims against the Catholic Church in California, with legal awards totaling to $1.2 billion. Some of these claims dated back to the 1930s.

Gov. Brown explained his veto decision in a three-page Oct. 12 message to members of the State Senate. He argued that the bill’s policy of making private institutions “subject to suit indefinitely” while exempting public institutions  is “simply too open-ended and unfair.”

He explained that legal cases alleging abuse make “valid and profoundly important claims,” but the statute of limitations is part of a legal tradition of “fairness.”

“There comes a time when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits,” the governor said. “With the passage of time, evidence may be lost or disposed of, memories fade and witnesses move away or die.”

He also stressed that the bill's failure to address the different treatment of abuse victims in public and private institutions continues a “significant inequity” in the law.

The Catholic Church and a coalition of non-profits and other religious organizations and private schools had opposed the bill.

Bishop Wilkerson said he thought the way the bill “discriminated” against victims of abuse in public institutions played a “major role” in prompting the veto. He also voiced hope that the Catholic Church’s response to abuse in the last 10 years – through its actions to protect young people and report allegations to law enforcement – further helped contribute to the veto.

The bishop pointed to the “safe environment” training instituted as a means of helping to protect children and discover potential abuse. Church workers and volunteers also undergo background checks.

He said that the Church suspends anyone, clergy or lay, who is suspected of abuse.

Originally published by Catholic News Agency on 15 October 2013.

Tags:
AbuseEducation
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