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$250k Spent to Block Sexual Abuse Bill in California

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You'd think that a bill to give victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to file a lawsuit would be the sort of non-controversial legislation that politicians would rush to champion. Well, you'd be wrong.

A California bill to let a small group of sexual abuse victims bring forward lawsuits has faced intense opposition from the Catholic Church. Senate Bill 131 by State Senator Jim Beall, D-San Jose, passed the state Senate without a single vote to spare. It now awaits a decision by former Jesuit seminarian Gov. Jerry Brown.

Why would state lawmakers block an effort to aid sexual abuse victims? Money.

Organizations that harbored abusers are fearful that they will be held civilly liable for their role in covering up cases of childhood sexual abuse. Catholic dioceses in California have already paid out $1.2 billion in abuse settlements. Instead of facing a new round of lawsuits and more settlements, the church decided that it was better to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lobbying campaign to block SB 131.

In August, the Orange County Register first reported on the elaborate, high-priced lobbying scheme to defeat the bill. According to the Sacramento Bee,

The newly created California Council of Nonprofit Organizations poured $258,000 into fighting the bill in the first six months of this year. The California Council, an umbrella organization of the California Catholic Conference, hired five lobbying firms, including heavyweight Lang Hansen O'Malley and Miller Governmental Relations.

These high-priced lobbyists did what they do best. They distorted the facts and spread misinformation about SB 131. One red herring raised by the hired guns: the bill is unfair because it does not revive cases against perpetrators or public entities. It only targets private institutions.

The argument is a distraction from the issue. Perpetrators are covered by criminal law. Public entities are held liable under a separate code section. And it's irrelevant to whether the state should hold private institutions accountable, some of which, even today, remain in denial.

"Today, there is no institution in the nation that has less of a problem with the sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church," claimed William A. Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, in a letter of opposition to SB 131. "In California, in particular, there has been so much progress that priestly sexual abuse has long since ceased to exist."

Ceased to exist? Donohue doesn't understand that the threat of sexual abuse is ongoing. It never ceases to exist because there are always more predators. Victims will always face an uphill battle to be taken seriously. For that very reason, big institutions must remain ever vigilant and adopt procedures that encourage an ongoing discussion about sexual abuse.

Eileen King, an expert on child abuse and the executive director of Child Justice, an outstanding nonprofit organization that advocates for abused, neglected and at-risk children, recently explained just how difficult it can be for victims to confront their accuser.

"The survivor may feel enormous shame, conflicts of affection and loyalty, or may feel pressure to 'forgive and forget' -- especially when the perpetrator is a minister, priest, rabbi, or counselor who the survivor has held in awe and for whom he/she still feels strong ties of affection or obedience," she told me.

But, of all the red herrings concocted by Sacramento lobbyists, my personal favorite: The bill helps the greedy trial lawyers. Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, the bill's most vocal opponent, said, "It ought not to be just about reopening wounds and feeding trial attorneys."

Advocates for survivors of sexual abuse take umbrage with Harkey's argument. Joelle Casteix, Western Regional Director for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, pointed out that some of the worst sexual abuse happened in Orange County, Harkey's backyard.

"Saying that SB 131 is 'feeding trial attorneys' is a slap in the face to the brave victims in Harkey's own district who were able to use the 2003 civil window to expose men like Denis Lyons, Michael Pecharich and John Lenihan -- men who had escaped exposure because of the concerted actions of church officials to silence victims."

As for reopening wounds, Casteix said,

The only way that old wounds are opened is when abuse is kept secret and wrongdoers are allowed to continue in abuse and cover-up. Victims are re-traumatized when lawmakers with no knowledge of the subject spout hurtful and incorrect rhetoric about the victims' rights movement in an attempt to keep more victims silent and disenfranchised.

Casteix raises another important point.

"If Governor Brown signs SB 131 into law, victims can move onto the next step: eliminating sovereign immunity for public institutions that cover up child sex abuse," she said. "But if we lose SB 131, we will never have the momentum to tackle that huge feat."

I'm betting a former "Catholic rebel" like Jerry Brown will stand up for the silent and disenfranchised.