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New law opens window for child sex abuse lawsuits in California

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Attorneys who specialize in child sex abuse cases say Sonoma County residents can expect to see a slew of fresh lawsuits against Catholic institutions and others under a new law granting greater leeway to adult victims who want to file claims against their abusers — including a three-year suspension of the statute of limitations beginning Jan. 1.

The floodgates already are opening, with a lawsuit to be filed Tuesday by three former clients of Hanna Boys Center who claim they were abused repeatedly by Father John S. Crews, the facility’s executive director for 29 years until 2013.

“We’re eager to get moving,” said Sacramento attorney Joseph George, who represents the three men and is filing the cases under a provision of the new law that extends the statute of limitations to cases that are pending on Jan. 1. “These guys have been waiting for a long time.”

The law, signed Sunday by Gov. Gavin Newsom on the last day of the legislative session, means adult victims who lost their chance to take action because they delayed filing suit for any reason now have a three-year window to consult an attorney and reconsider.

It also raises the age limit at which adult victims can file such suits from 26 to 40. Victims can pursue a suit even beyond that, as long as it is within five years of when they made the connection between childhood assault and psychological injury or illness — whichever comes later.

Though similar to two prior bills vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, this legislation is different because it lifts longtime exemptions on the recovery of damages from public entities like schools, fulfilling a desire by the Catholic Church for fairness and broadening opportunities for victims of abuse in public schools to file claims.

It additionally triples damages for organizations that cover up abuse by a perpetrator, resulting in further sexual abuse.

“It’s definitely pro-survivor legislation in so many ways,” said Santa Rosa attorney Dan Beck. “It definitely gives survivors hope, in that for at least the three-year look-back, you can be 100 and have a claim after January 1.”

Experts say the new legislation reflects growing understanding of the nature of childhood trauma from sexual abuse and how long it can take for victims to recognize the enduring harm that so often drives people to seek escape in substance abuse and self-harm.

“Most people don’t want of think about it,” said Southern California attorney Vince Finaldi, who worked with Beck to secure a $6.8 million settlement for two victims of former Hanna Boys Center clinical director Kevin Thorpe earlier this year. “They just put it in a closet, and they don’t go there. The law has been updated to reflect our current understanding of the psychology of sexual abuse.”

Melanie Sakoda, the Bay Area survivor support coordinator for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, cited a study indicating the average age of survivors coming forward is 52.

“By the time most feel comfortable to come forward, they are barred by the statute of limitations,” she said.

Other states also have recently opened what Sakoda called “a window to justice,” including New York, New Jersey, Hawaii and Montana, Finaldi said.

The new law, AB 218, follows a one-year suspension on the statute of limitations in 2003 that ushered in about 1,000 previously barred lawsuits around California, including more than 850 cases involving Roman Catholic priests and dioceses — so many that state courts consolidated the cases.

Both Beck and Finaldi said they are representing alleged victims of Crews and are reviewing their cases to see if they will file suits next year. Both would include Hanna Boys Center and the Santa Rosa Diocese, which is affiliated, as defendants.

Crews was executive director at the residential treatment center near Sonoma for 29 years, until the widow of a former parishioner of his at St. Sebastian Church in Sebastopol came forward to say her husband had been a childhood victim of the priest and she worried about his continued access to young people.

Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa said he thinks removing the exclusion for public schools will have the greater impact on the civil caseload after years of litigation involving Catholic priests and recent outreach on the part of the church, including the Santa Rosa diocese’s Victim’s Compensation Program, announced earlier this year.

Vasa said about a dozen people have contacted the church in response to the program seeking assistance and/or compensation, bringing total settlements to victims over more than two decades to about $33 million, more than a third of it covered by insurance.

“I’m not excessively concerned about an abundance of new cases coming in,” Vasa said. “We’ve been dealing with this for the last 20 years plus. I think there could be a few souls who have come forward at the present moment but I don’t anticipate an avalanche of new cases.”

Hanna Boys Center officials similarly launched an effort to root out cases of abuse earlier this month, using a private investigator to contact each and every alumni who could be tracked down.

Chief Executive Officer Brian Farragher was not available Monday to discuss any results.

Beck and his colleague, Rachael Mache, noted that anyone who might want to consider coming forward to talk to an attorney should know that they can file a suit anonymously, as a John or Jane Doe, but should think about doing it relatively soon, in the event the court calendar gets overcrowded.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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