Time out for all California sexual-abuse cases?

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John Pack Lambert

    So wait, am I reading this right, that private, for-profit organizations are also not effected by this change? This constant lifting of the statue of limitations is a true outrage. If I remember correctly it is also an odd result of an odd decision by the Supreme Court, which allowed for lifting civil statues of limitations but not criminal ones.
    The view that leaving people open to older and older suits is helpful to anyone, especially when it uniquely targets churches but protects public schools is very disturbing.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    The whole purpose of the statute of limitations is not to help criminals escape civil or criminal prosecution, but because the more time goes by the harder it is to have a fair trial as memory fades or gets confused along with evidence.
    And I doubt if any media outlets mentioned why the fanatic protection of public schools, etc. is so strong especially among Democrats and liberals.
    First, the Catholic Church hasn’t bought into the liberal social agenda and, second, the Dem Party is, after all, the big government party. Thus their determination to protect (and hide) the sins of their supporters as some bishops hid the sins of their clergy. But unfortunately the mainstream media and the left politicians protect the same groups.

  • Pancho20

    Right on Deacon. I live in Los Angeles and the Church is encouraging us to get in contact with our assembly members to vote no on SB 131 before the bill is voted on. Allowing the Church to be sued again will be devastating for ministries and services. To satisfy suits the Church may be forced to sell off schools etc. and shut down social services. The

    The proposed bill’s authors reveal the intent of the bill. Jim Beale was awarded by Planned Parenthood – no friend of the Catholic Church. The co-sponsor Ricardo Lara is a gay activist. Is this bill just ax grinding? The bill does nothing to protect children who are abused; and contingency lawyers make out like bandits i.e. many times lawyers get more than one half of the settlements. Meanwhile abused children in public schools are denied equal protection..

    Some interesting facts shed light on abuse in public schools in Los Angeles: The Media Report
    http://www.themediareport.com reports 189 cases of abuse in just one school. LAUSD paid out $30,0000 in just one year for abuse cases. According to a report from the L.A. Daily News in the last 15 months, some 600 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have either been fired, have resigned, or have been administratively “housed” due to allegations of serious “inappropriate conduct,” much of it involving sickening child sex abuse. The yearly national review that takes place in all dioceses in the US report about 6 or 7 cases of abuse. Meanwhile we’re being asked to re open cases from 30, 40, or 50 years ago while ignoring the real threat to children’s safety which exists in public schools.

    I hope Catholics in California wake up and speak up against this unfair and unjust bill.

    • AshleyWB

      Yea, it’s so unjust when victims get to see justice done to the criminals who violated them. Especially when gay activists sponsor the bill. That’s how you know it’s a bad law.

      • Pancho20

        The only true justice is universally applied to both victims in private and PUBLIC institutions. Otherwise this law singles out one group and exempts another. Is that justice? The public’s attention should focus on where abuse is happening now – i.e. in public schools. This proposed legislation is only to help lawyers to sue the Church again and does nothing to help the victims.

        • AshleyWB

          Yes, it is justice for those victims for whom it enables justice-seeking. So what you said: “This proposed legislation is only to help lawyers to sue the Church again and does nothing to help the victims.:” is completely false. This law clearly will help some victims achieve justice. There are other victims in other circumstances that the law may not help. It is your argument that we should only pass perfect laws? Are you really opposed to justice unless it applies to every single person on earth? That seems suspiciously self-serving.

          • Pancho20

            True it may help ‘some’ but not all who are abused… Lawyers know full well that they can’t sue public institutions – so why not sue the Church where’s there’s money to be made. My point is if the legislature wants to lift the statute of limitations – why is it not applicable to all institutions so all those who are abused can have their day in court? Where is equal treatment.


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