A bill landed on Gov. Jerry Brown‘s desk Friday that would give victims of childhood sexual abuse a longer window to sue private organizations that employed their abusers.
Senate Bill 131, authored by Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), passed the Assembly last Wednesday and then the state Senate with a 21-8 vote Friday. Brown has less than a month to sign the bill into law.
“I’m very happy this moved forward despite surprisingly well-funded opposition to kill it,” Beall says. “This will basically make organizations accountable for knowingly protecting employees who molested children at work.”
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen wrote a letter to Beall in support of the legislation.
“As a prosecutor, I have worked with dozens of child sexual assault victims,” Rosen wrote in an Aug. 27 missive. “I understand that this is an emotionally charged issue. There are known facts about how victims deal with this specific type of childhood trauma. They keep it secret for years. I know firsthand how difficult it is for these to even acknowledge, let alone deal with the trauma they have suffered at the hands of those in a position of trust.”
Victims of childhood sexual abuse repress memories of the trauma, Beall says. It surfaces years later, often during therapy. About one in three women and one in six men have fallen victim to sexual abuse at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Victims are more prone to emotional and behavioral problems later in life, including addiction, depression and conduct disorders.
“The societal cost of these problems are (sic) enormous,” Rosen writes. “Nationally, the CDC puts the damage at $124 billion a year, and if abusers do not pay, taxpayers do.”
As a county supervisor, Beall worked closely with the nonprofit foster children agency Bill Wilson Center. People would come up to him and share stories of their past abuse, he says, which led him to advocate for policies to prevent it and to enable victims to find recourse for damages done.
As he looked into amending the law to allow older victims more time to sue private organizations for past abuses, he was approached by a group of ex-gymnasts from SoCal. The gymnasts’ coach abused them, they said, but a lot of them kept it secret and moved on with their lives. Then, 15 years later, they saw the coach on TV at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At this point, they were in their 30s and couldn’t sue the gymnastics organization, which apparently moved the coach around, site to site, to protect his job and his reputation, Beall says. At an Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing last year, that group of women sat in the front row holding each other’s hands waiting to testify.
“It was very hard for them to talk about it,” Beall says. “That’s part of why this crime isn’t addressed many times, because it’s hard for victims to come out and speak up. The problem is the underground nature of child abuse, the non-disclosure agreements and secret settlements.”
Beall’s bill amends a gap in the law that has blocked victims from pursuing restitution. A 2003 law broadened the statute of limitations for victims to file against private entities that knew their employees were a danger to kids but continued to employ them anyway. The decade-old SB 1779 gave victims older than 26 years a chance to sue if they discovered injuries from the abuse they experienced as a kid. The law gave them three years from that discovery to file a civil lawsuit, but it left out victims who came forward after 2004. The new bill would add a one-year retroactive window.
Tony Quarry had a case that fell into that gap. He filed a court case contesting that one-year deadline, but lost in the State Supreme Court last year. In a statement about the case, the judge said that it was up to legislators to clarify and amend the law so a case like that could have gone through. Beall says he took that statement as a directive.
Opponents to Beall’s bill spent $200,000 on about 20 lobbyists to fight it. Catholic diocese groups and other nonprofits that had to pay out damages to victims in the wake of the 2003 law spent a pretty penny on “No on SB 131” ads posted up in the Sac Bee, blogs and other news sites. They preached from pulpits and launched a TV campaign to subvert the bill.
One of the arguments against it pointed out that the bill singles out private groups, but doesn’t address abuses committed by employees of public agencies. Beall says that deals with another section of state law entirely and would require a separate bill, something he may pursue or support if someone else introduces it. Eventually, he says, the state should completely lift the statute of limitations on sex crimes, given their effect of silencing victims for so long.
Supporters include healthcare professionals like the California Nurses Association, law enforcement agencies like the Peace Officers Research Association, the California Association of Chiefs of Police, prosecutors, including Rosen and the DA in San Diego County, and the National Center for Victims of Crime.
This new bill follows up on Beall’s SB 326, which Brown signed into law Monday. SB 326 will require schools at the beginning of 2014 to notify parents in advance if a registered sex offender is granted permission to take part in school-related activities. Beall came up with the law after San Jose parents were outraged to learn San Jose’s St. Frances Cabrini parish and school allowed a man who raped a child in 2010 to volunteer at an event. The Senate and Assembly both unanimously passed the bill.