Catholic Church lobbies to avert sex abuse lawsuits

(Los Angeles Times) At the height of the clergy sex-abuse scandal in 2002, Catholic leaders stayed silent as California lawmakers passed a landmark bill that gave hundreds of accusers extra time to file civil lawsuits. The consequences were costly.

California dioceses paid $1.2 billion in settlements and released thousands of confidential documents that showed their leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, had made plans to shield admitted molesters from law enforcement.

Now, state legislators are considering a bill that would give some alleged victims more time to sue. But this time, the church is waging a pitched battle in Sacramento to quash it.

A group affiliated with the church has hired five lobbying firms and spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting SB 131. Opponents argue that the bill unfairly opens the church, the Boy Scouts, and other private and nonprofit employers to lawsuits over decades-old allegations that are tough to fight in court. Two bishops have visited the Capitol to argue their case to the bill’s chief author.

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the campaign extends to the very top. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez warned parishioners last month in the church newspaper that the proposal “puts the social services and educational work of the Church at risk” and urged them to press their lawmakers to scuttle it.

The church, Gomez said, “faces deep challenges from the government” and cited the proposal as an example without explaining what it would do. “Let’s pray for our religious freedom … and let’s exercise that freedom by contacting our legislators about SB 131,” he wrote.

The current battle has roots in 2002, when lawmakers were searching for a way to respond to the unfolding clergy scandal. At the time, California’s civil statute of limitations — or the time limit for plaintiffs to file lawsuits — was relatively strict for child sex-abuse claims.

Plaintiffs could sue alleged abusers or their employers until age 26. After that, they could sue within three years of finding links between past molestation and present psychological problems, but they could no longer sue employers who may have failed to protect them from known molesters.

The 2002 bill extended the three-year discovery rule to employers and lifted the statute of limitations on lawsuits against them for all of 2003, allowing a slew of claims related to decades-old abuse. Church leaders didn’t mount a campaign against the bill. They didn’t testify at hearings. They didn’t write a single letter in opposition. The legislation zipped through both chambers of the Legislature — not one lawmaker voted against it.

“At the time it didn’t seem like too unfair of a response to the sexual abuse of children,” said Edward Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, the church’s political arm. “I don’t think anybody anticipated the exposure that would be there.”

In 2007, the L.A. Archdiocese alone settled with more than 500 plaintiffs for $660 million. Church officials were also forced to make public a trove of confidential papers in January of this year. In an acknowledgment that the documents had sullied the church’s reputation, archdiocese attorneys tried this year to get upcoming sex-abuse trials moved to another part of the state, saying the media firestorm had tainted the Southern California jury pool.

Since the California law took effect, lawmakers in other states have introduced similar bills, arguing that civil lawsuits are a key way for abuse victims to seek justice. But only three states — Delaware, Hawaii and Minnesota — have passed such laws, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York and an expert on child sex-abuse statues of limitation.

That’s partly because of the Catholic Church’s opposition efforts, she said, which have included hiring lobbyists and dispatching bishops to try to sway legislators. “The 2002 bill caught the church off-guard,” said Hamilton, who supports lengthening the time child sex-abuse victims have to sue. “Now the Catholic bishops are bringing their A-game to California.”

Their target is a bill introduced by Sen. James Beall Jr. (D-San Jose). Its key provision would again lift the statute of limitations for one year, but only for a group who were 26 or older and missed the previous deadline because they more recently discovered abuse-related psychological problems.

Advocates say loosening time limits is crucial in sex-abuse cases because it often takes decades for victims to admit that they were molested and seek legal recourse. Supporters of SB 131 include the National Center for Victims of Crime and the California Police Chiefs Assn.

“There are victims out there who deserve justice and accountability,” said Joelle Casteix, western regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Casteix sued the Diocese of Orange during the 2003 window, alleging abuse at the hands of a lay choir director at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

Casteix not only won a $1.6-million settlement, but she also received documents that showed administrators knew about — and ignored — the abuse. “It gave me my dignity back,” she said.

Opponents argue that it’s hard to mount a defense against decades-old accusations because key witnesses are often dead or infirm and evidence may have vanished. They also say that legislation that temporarily suspends the statute of limitations encourages people to make false claims in hopes of walking away with a settlement check.

Because Beall’s bill doesn’t apply to schools and other public agencies, church lobbyists also say they’re being scapegoated. The California State Alliance of YMCAs and the California Assn. of Private School Organizations, whose members include Catholic dioceses, oppose the bill as well.

“We’re not going to open up a window again. We have done that once,” Dolejsi said. “Are you going to open another window five years from now? When does it end?”

A group linked to the church, the California Council of Nonprofit Organizations, spent $75,000 in the first three months of the year to oppose SB 131, according to papers filed with the secretary of state. The ties between the group and the church, including Dolejsi’s affiliation with both, were first reported by the Orange County Register.

Beall said two high-ranking church officials told him that the bill could financially hobble schools and parishes: Auxiliary Bishop Gerald E. Wilkerson of the L.A. Archdiocese and Bishop Jaime Soto of the Diocese of Sacramento, who are president and vice president of the California Catholic Conference. Other bishops have urged their flocks to help defeat the bill.

In Southern California, at least one parish, St. Timothy in West Los Angeles, rounded up letters signed by parishioners to send to Sacramento. An archdiocese spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether other churches did the same.

It’s unclear what effect the campaign has had, though a posting on the California Catholic Conference’s website said that it persuaded some lawmakers to either vote against the bill or abstain from weighing in.

The bill recently squeaked through the Senate and passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee. It goes to the lower house’s Appropriations Committee next. Because of the church’s lobbying efforts, Beall said, he was concerned about its survival.

“If people don’t like a bill, they kill it in appropriations,” he said.

Times staff writer Anthony York in Sacramento contributed to this report.