New law opens window for child sex abuse lawsuits in California
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.