It’s time for a quick dip into tmatt’s massive file of GetReligion guilt, the cyber-place in which I stash stories that I really wanted to critique, but other things (papal visits, health issues, my own travel, etc.) jumped in the way.
In this case, we’re talking about a Los Angeles Times report about the ongoing legal wars linked to one of the most painful subjects — ever — on the religion-news beat. I am referring to the waves of scandal in the Catholic church over the past quarter century linked to the sexual abuse of children and, in the vast majority of cases, teen-agers.
This story is, on one crucial point, somewhat better than many mainstream reports (but I’m afraid that isn’t saying much).
It’s a bit better, but I still think that one very crucial piece of information needed to go much higher in the text.
The subject of this report is a familiar one for those who closely follow the scandals. Here’s the all-to-familiar opening of the story:
At the height of the clergy sex-abuse scandal in 2002, Catholic leaders stayed silent as California lawmakers passed a landmark bill that gave hundreds of accusers extra time to file civil lawsuits. The consequences were costly.
California dioceses paid $1.2 billion in settlements and released thousands of confidential documents that showed their leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, had made plans to shield admitted molesters from law enforcement.
Now, state legislators are considering a bill that would give some alleged victims more time to sue. But this time, the church is waging a pitched battle in Sacramento to quash it.
So, this raises an important question: Does the church have a logical reason to fight this particular bill, other than a presumed desire to avoid justice and to save lots of money?
As it turns out, there is a reason and it’s the same reason discussed in other parts of the country over the years. The content of the church’s objections made it into this particular story, which is good since — believe it or not — I have seen news reports that completely ignored that perspective.
So what is the logic? Ah, there is the issue. The information comes rather slowly.
Right up top, readers learn this:
Opponents argue that the bill unfairly opens the church, the Boy Scouts and other private and nonprofit employers to lawsuits over decades-old allegations that are tough to fight in court. Two bishops have visited the Capitol to argue their case to the bill’s chief author.
So, why is the bill called “unfair”?
The crucial words in this paragraph are “private” and “nonprofit.”
The implication is that the bill reopens the door for alleged victims to file lawsuits against some kinds of organizations and not others. In the past, church leaders have protested that this kind of bill uniquely threatens Catholic leaders, and leaders of similar PRIVATE groups, while failing to allow alleged victims similar freedom to seek out and sue possible abusers in other major PUBLIC institutions.
The key — stated at one point in the story — is that legislators have worked hard to focus legal heat on abuse in churches, as opposed to focusing on crimes of sexual abuse, period, no matter where these hellish acts were said to have taken place. In other words, churches are uniquely dangerous places.
So where do readers learn what is actually going on? Sad to say, but the crucial info near the very end. First there is this, in the middle of the story:
Their target is a bill introduced by Sen. James Beall Jr. (D-San Jose). Its key provision would again lift the statute of limitations for one year, but only for a group who were 26 or older and missed the previous deadline because they more recently discovered abuse-related psychological problems. Advocates say loosening time limits is crucial in sex-abuse cases because it often takes decades for victims to admit that they were molested and seek legal recourse.
So what’s the problem?
Because Beall’s bill doesn’t apply to schools and other public agencies, church lobbyists also say they’re being scapegoated. The California State Alliance of YMCAs and the California Assn. of Private School Organizations, whose members include Catholic dioceses, oppose the bill as well.
In other words, if someone was allegedly molested in a Catholic school, the law offers this victim new options.
But if this person was abused in a public school (other than Penn State, maybe), that’s too bad. Time has run out and it will not be extended.
Why not offer the same legal options in the public arena as well as the private? That’s an important question for journalists to ask.
It’s good that this private vs. public information made it into this news report. It’s not so good that readers had to wait until the very end to find out what is going on in the fine print in the bill, especially since that detail is driving the entire story.