The Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, and Public Schools lose fight against California law providing justice for survivors of childhood sexual assault

Prison-inside-empty-300x199The rates of childhood sexual assault are staggering. One in every five women under the age of 18 have been the victim of a sexual assault. The rate is lower, but still unimaginably high for boys: one out of twenty. The state legislature is finally catching up with changing social norms and cultural developments surrounding sexual assault. Until the recent passing of California Assembly Bill 218, many perpetrators of sexual assault hid behind the years of silence imposed on their victims through fear, embarrassment, disbelief, and intimidation. Now, however, the laws surrounding sexual assault are changing, allowing child victims that did not bring claims in the previously prescribed 8-year window to seek justice in a civil court until he or she reaches the age of 40. In this regard, California follows New York, New Jersey, and several other states enacting similar legislation.

            Individuals who were victimized and are still within the former statute of limitations period will be able to bring a claim up and until the day before they turn 40 years old. Individuals for which the statute of limitations has already run will be granted a 3-year window to file a lawsuit. For those individuals, claims that were already time-barred will be able to file their claim anytime between January 1, 2020, and December 31, 2022.

The new law also includes a provision that drew heavy opposition, and a deluge of lobbying dollars, from the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, and the California public school system. Where a survivor of sexual assault can show that an organization covered up previous sexual assaults, and the survivor was subsequently assaulted—making the coverup its cause—the survivor can recover treble damages. The most publicized examples of such behavior regard the Catholic church, where leaders were aware of predatory clergy, but purposefully and systematically covered up the assaults and allowed the predators to have continued access to children. Some 800 lawsuits were filed in the weeks following the opening of the revival window. Between June 2017 and June 2018, prior to enactment of the law, the Catholic Church is estimated to have paid $301.6 million nationwide in relation to sexual abuse claims. That massive figure is poised to grow exponentially as more adults seek compensation for decades old sexual assaults.

Although it has likely paid the most in sexual assault settlements, the Catholic Church is in no real threat of losing financial viability. The Boy Scouts of America is a different story. Chief Executive of the Boy Scouts of America, Michael Surbaugh, has publicly stated that the organization was exploring all possible options to address the growing liability from many of its volunteers using the organization as a means to prey on young boys, including Chapter 11 bankruptcy. If the organization chose this option, the survivors would likely not receive the full amounts of any settlements or judgments against the organization, as its debts would be reduced while it is restructured in accordance with the bankruptcy code.

Public schools, despite bringing a vigorous defense, are not exempt from the revival window or the treble damages provision either. A similar bill was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2018 because it excluded public institutions from the revival window. Despite partisan rancor and a campaign to keep public organizations exempt, the bill that took effect October 13, 2019, did not include the exemption. Schools claimed that liability insurance premiums would become excessively expensive, or even unavailable, once the law took effect. Rightfully so—one report prepared by a New York public investigative commission found that in about 16 percent of cases of sexual assault by schoolteachers, administrators tried to cover up the offense or delayed reporting it. This sort of conduct implicates the treble damages provision, skyrocketing the cost of legal action.

Despite resistance to the law—in part grounded in reasonable economic analysis—the legislature decided to prioritize justice over finance. The necessary resources will undoubtably be found. How the law will effect the public school system remains to be seen; it is an important issue, however, as most children require the state’s educational resources. Nevertheless, ensuring the state compensates survivors of sexual assault at the hands of its employees will fulfill the government’s moral obligation to the people.

Given the complexities of the law surrounding civil suits for injury sustained through sexual assault, experienced legal representation is important. If you are the survivor of sexual assault, regardless of when it occurred, contact the experienced attorneys at Neumann Law Group for a free consultation.

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