Catholic Church lobbies against Calif. abuse bill

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tony Quarry suppressed his memories of being abused by a Roman Catholic priest for nearly 30 years and decided to sue only after finding out that his five brothers were molested by the same man — just to discover that it was too late.

The state’s high court ultimately tossed out the brothers’ lawsuit because they missed a special legal window that allowed victims to sue over abuse claims decades after the fact. Their plight, however, has inspired new sex abuse legislation in California a decade after a similar bill cost the church hundreds of millions in civil settlements.

“I still believed in the tooth fairy when these things happened to me,” Quarry, 51, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s a good thing for these other people to have the opportunity to step forward.”

Like the previous law, Senate Bill 131 would permit many victims who would otherwise be unable to file a civil suit due to time and age restrictions — like the Quarry brothers — to sue their abuser’s employer in civil court.

The proposed law would lift the statute of limitations for one year for the group of alleged victims who were 26 and older and missed the previous deadline.

The Catholic Church did not fight the 2002 bill that opened the flood gates for hundreds of victims and led to $1.2 billion in settlements from dioceses statewide, including $660 million in Los Angeles alone. This time, however, the church is fighting hard against the proposed legislation — from the pews to lobbyists.

The 2002 law led to settlements that also forced the Los Angeles archdiocese to make public earlier this year thousands of pages of confidential files kept on priests accused or suspected of abuse.

The California Council of Nonprofit Organization, a group affiliated with the California Catholic Conference, has spent more than $70,000 to fight the bill, according to documents from the California Secretary of State’s office. The Catholic Church and private organizations have called the bill a step backward, and charge they have been unfairly targeted because the proposed legislation does not apply to public schools.

The bill, as authored by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, specifically targets only private institutions.

In Los Angeles, Archbishop Jose Gomez urged local Catholics to contact their legislators, arguing in the church newsletter that the proposed change “puts the social services and educational work of the Church at risk.”

The LA archdiocese and other private institutions fear the reform would make them vulnerable to cases like those brought against the church following allegations of clergy sex abuse more than a decade ago.

“Our hearts can bleed and feel sad for those who didn’t come forward, but the purpose is good and fair public policy,” said Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, which represents the California Catholic Conference of Bishops.

The bill, Dolejsi argued, could have a devastating effect on nonprofits, such as Catholic schools, as well as state dioceses that have already paid more than $1 billion in settlements, while exempting public employers.

The LA archdiocese declined to comment on the bill and referred calls to Dolejsi. Archdiocese attorney J. Michael Hennigan did not respond to a request for comment.

The California Association of Private School Organizations, which includes pre-collegiate, independent and religious schools, has also said that the bill is unfair.

California’s current law states a victim can sue a third party up until the age of 26, or within three years of the time a victim realizes he or she was abused — whichever period expires later.

Under the proposed bill, the statute of limitations would be lifted for one year for the group of people who were 26 or older and missed the previous window because they discovered abuse trauma more recently.

Tom Lyon, a law expert at the University of Southern California, said the bill’s key provision addresses issues of fairness. One group of abuse victims has no means to come forward and file a civil suit, he said, and the proposed law aims to fix that.

“It’s hard to defend a case when it happened decades ago,” he said.

“But why not give them their day in court?”

The Quarry brothers’ case dates back to 2007, when they filed a civil lawsuit against the bishop of Oakland.

The brothers, now in their 40s and 50s, alleged they were molested by an Oakland priest in the 1970s but didn’t connect it to their distress until 2006. The priest admitted in a sworn deposition in 2005 that he had had sexual relationships with four sets of underage brothers during the 1970s, including at least two of the brothers in the Quarry case. The priest was forced to retire following abuse allegations in 1993 and died in 2010.

In 2011, the California Supreme Court ruled it was too late for the brothers to sue because the one-year window extended by the legislature had passed.

The proposed reform has already gone through the state Senate and passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee. It’s expected to go to the House Appropriations Committee in August.

Quarry and his brothers can’t refile their lawsuit even if the new legislation passes because the high court’s ruling in their individual case was final, but he hopes it passes so other victims are able to come forward.

“They call us all enemies of the church, but we’re not,” he said. “We’re victims of the church.”

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