US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Is veto of California bill on sex abuse suits cause for celebration?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Catholic Church in California breathed a sigh of relief last weekend when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have extended the statute of limitations on lawsuits in sexual abuse cases and opened up a one-year window for any and all past abuse victims to file suit against private institutions. The bill, SB 131, was strongly opposed by church officials, who of course realized it could have meant big financial losses for the church. But their jubilation over its demise seems rather unnecessary--if not downright offensive to the many past victims of sexual abuse on the church's watch.

On the surface, Gov. Brown has sound reasons for his veto: The bill applied only to private entities and exempted public institutions from facing lawsuits. Brown argued, as did Catholic leaders, that this was unfair discrimination of victims in that it gave preference to those who suffered abuse from private institutions like the Catholic Church and left no recourse for victims who were abused in institutions like public schools. That makes sense--all victims should have been given an equal opportunity for justice, regardless of where their abuse took place.

Where Brown loses me is his comment that, "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." Though I can't personally speak of the horrors of enduring sexual abuse as a child, I can only imagine that for many victims, those "past acts" still have a profound influence on the present, no matter how long ago they may have happened.

From the perspective of the church, I can again understand the concern. Having been both a parish and diocesan employee myself, I know very well how tight budgets can be and how much damage a major lawsuit settlement could potentially cause. So do folks in the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, where 22 employees were laid off in 2011 and the diocesan newspaper was shut down following a $77.4 million settlement. Or the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which offered early retirement packages to nearly half of the diocesan staff earlier this year after paying out $36 million in lawsuits. Similar situations have happened around the country--in California, the church has already paid out $1.2 billion in lawsuits--and it is both unfair and unfortunate that innocent people who work for the church today would lose their jobs over sins committed by others in the past.

But even with those concerns in mind, I don't believe that SB 131 was, as some have claimed, "categorically anti-Catholic" just because it would have hit the church hard for its past crimes and cover-ups. The church has made a great deal of progress in providing a safe environment for children and eliminating abuse cover-ups, but new procedures haven't been 100 percent effective and recent failings in Missouri and New Jersey and Minnesota show the problem isn't entirely solved.

Even if it was, and even if the church was never responsible for the abuse of another person, that doesn't change the fact that way too many innocent souls have suffered through unspeakable crimes. As much as the church wants to put that behind them, it will never just disappear for those victims who lived through it. SB 131 may have had its flaws, but it would have given many individuals who found the courage to come forward about their abuse long after the statute of limitations had expired a chance to have their day in court.

For the church to oppose the bill and then to openly celebrate its defeat only shows that victims still aren't their first priority.