Catholic League urges veto of 'discriminatory' Calif. abuse bill

Bill Donahue of the Catholic League Credit Catholic League CNA US Catholic News 5 17 13 Bill Donahue of the Catholic League. | Catholic League.

California Gov. Jerry Brown should veto an abuse lawsuit bill that is "flagrantly discriminatory" and "targeted at the Catholic Church," says Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

"Going after the Catholic schools today for cases of abuse that took place decades ago, while exempting the public schools – at a time when there is a serious problem with the sexual molestation of minors in the public schools – is irrational, discriminatory and grossly unjust," the Catholic League president said in a Sept. 10 letter to Gov. Brown.

His comments come in response to S.B. 131, a bill now headed to the governor's desk that would lift the statute of limitations on abuse lawsuits only for private institutions, but not for public schools.

Donohue said the bill is "indefensible" because under its provisions "no one who was abused in public schools before 2009 can sue the teacher, the school, or the school district, but if someone was abused in a Catholic school when JFK was president, he can sue the teacher (if he is alive), the school, and the diocese."

Last Friday, the state senate passed the bill by a vote of 21-8. Gov. Brown has until Oct. 13 to sign the bill into law or veto it.

The legislation would lift 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 presently set at 26 years-old.

However, the bill specifically exempts public schools and other government institutions from lawsuits. It also exempts the actual perpetrators of the abuse from civil action in some cases, while leaving their employers vulnerable.

"Does anyone doubt that a bill that applied only to the public schools, exempting all private ones, would be roundly condemned? So should this bill," said Donohue.

He rejected claims that contemporary Catholic institutions are "rife with sexual abuse," citing data from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice saying that most clergy sex abuse took place between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s.

Donohue said that about 90 percent of California children attend public schools, where thousands of cases of sexual abuse are alleged each year. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing says action is taken in about 800 of these cases.

Donohue pointed to an "outrageous" recent sexual abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, where several teachers enticed their young students to play extremely lewd sex games.

The scandal resulted in the dismissal of 100 teachers across the public school district. An audit found that the district failed to report teachers accused of sex abuse and faulted California public school districts' poor communication in informing other districts about employees accused of misconduct.

Donohue also contended that attorneys were the "big winners" in abuse lawsuits filed against Catholic institutions in the past decade, taking hundreds of millions in fees.

Nearly 1,000 claims – some dating back to the 1950s – have been filed against the Catholic Church in California since a 2003 exemption to the statute of limitations, with legal awards totaling to $1.2 billion.

Donahue charged that if the latest bill is enacted, dioceses will be forced to take money from parishes and schools, "hurting innocent Catholics, many of whom are not wealthy, so they can pay for claims so old that no one can reasonably disprove them."

Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told CNA June 11 that the Catholic Church in California can no longer rely on insurance policies and sales of property and other assets to meet the costs of any new lawsuits.

A new round of lawsuits could force dioceses to close schools, he said. Lawsuits could force the Diocese of Stockton to declare bankruptcy.

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Other private institutions such as the YMCA, the YWCA, and the California Council of Non-Profit Organizations have also opposed the bill.

The Wall Street Journal has criticized the bill as a "nonprofit shakedown" that targets the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and the "political enemies" of the legislature, in which Democrats hold a supermajority of seats.

The Catholic Church has implemented "stiff penalties" for abuse offenders and mandates suspected abuse reporting, Donahue said. Catholic schools now require abuse prevention training, while most public school districts do not.

He compared the bill to allowing the National Guard to police a low-crime neighborhood, while ignoring other communities.

"Catholics in California are wondering what in the world is going on when lawmakers are giving the public schools a pass when those same schools are the source of most of the problems," he said.

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