(Nov. 11, 2019) The Associated Press reported last month that clergy abuse attorneys expect thousands of California sex abuse lawsuits to be filed when the state’s new law takes effect January 1, 2020. The cases will be filed not only against alleged child molesters, but also against the institutions which employed and, in some cases, allegedly protected them from being discovered and punished.
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Attorneys said the Roman Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and some other institutions could face so many lawsuits as to trigger sudden bankruptcies.
The California School Boards Association went so far as to call the state’s new law to aid sex abuse victims an “existential threat” to smaller school districts
Gov. Gavin Newsom approved the new law last month. It not only gives victims of childhood sexual abuse until age 40 to file lawsuits, but also gives sex abuse survivors of any age three years to file — until Jan 1, 2023.
New York State Sex Abuse Filings
More than 400 lawsuits were filed in New York state in August 2019, on just the first day that New York opened a one-year window for victims to sue. New York and New Jersey both raised their statutes of limitations to age 55 this year, with New Jersey’s new law taking effect in December 2019.
About 1,000 sex abuse lawsuits, most against the Catholic church, were filed when California lifted the statute of limitations for one year in 2003, according to an attorney who represents an Olympic medalist and other survivors of USA Gymnastics sexual abuse, along with victims of former USC gynecologist George Tyndall.
Victims are more willing to speak up today, he said, and the new law allows for triple damages if victims can prove a predator’s employer(s)s tried to cover up the abuse.
The Snowball Effect
“The ‘Me, too’ movement has shown us how reporting abuse can lead to a snowball effect,” said attorney David Matthews. “When high-profile predators like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein were charged, hundreds of previously silent women and men came forward to share their stories, too. I think you’re going to see something similar with these sex abuse cases. And not just in the Catholic church. In the Boy Scouts, private schools, public schools, in hospitals with predatory physicians or employees. We’re going to see the dam break again, and it needs to. This kind of unspeakable abuse needs to be brought into the open, to help cleanse our public and private institutions, our whole society.”
On the other side of this law change to aid sex abuse victims, California School Boards Association spokesman Troy Flint claimed that California’s new law is “an existential threat to the viability of many school districts.”
Mr. Flint said the new law opens up another generation to compensation.
“It’s going to be very difficult for schools to determine what happened in a case 40 years ago,” said Mr. Flint. “Witnesses may have moved or passed away, evidence may be gone. (In many cases they will not be able to mount a credible defense.”
Mr. Flint added, “Districts will likely be forced to settle, and the insurance companies have already signaled that either the premiums are going to become prohibitive, or they will withdraw from this segment of the market.”
California Catholic Church Response
The California Catholic Conference declined comment, though executive director Andrew Rivas called child sexual abuse by priests “a legacy of shame.”
Mr. Rivas said the church paid more than $1.2 billion to hundreds of victims in 2003, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars afterwards for therapy and other survivors’ services. Six California dioceses in Sept. 2019 started a private independent compensation program for child victims.
Despite such sporadic progress through the years, most childhood sex abuse victims remain painfully silent, and the actual number of sex abuse crimes goes wildly unreported.
Now, just as the “Me, too” movement brought more sex abuse crimes to the fore and more abusers to justice, hopefully the new law changes in California and elsewhere will help give survivors of sexual abuse an added boost of courage to tell their stories and seek justice in the courts.
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