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Statute of Limitations Re-Opened for Sexual Abuse of Children

Diocese continues to sponsor Independent Compensation Program for victim-survivors

By Aida Bustos

SAN DIEGO — Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation that significantly expands the number of victims of childhood sexual abuse who can file a lawsuit against their abusers and the public and private institutions that employ them, including public schools.

The bill the governor signed on Oct. 14, known as AB 218, was sponsored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher (D-San Diego) and goes into effect on Jan. 1. The bill re-opens the statute of limitations for lawsuits involving the sexual abuse of children.  The “window” will re-open in January 2020 and remain open for three years.

The San Diego Diocese, meanwhile, continues to focus on supporting victims and their families. In its latest initiative, it’s sponsoring an Independent Compensation Program that offers victim-survivors of sexual childhood abuse committed by a priest of the diocese a no-cost/no-risk way to file a claim against the diocese.

Victims may file a claim regardless of when the abuse occurred. Program Administrators have said most qualifying claims will be paid in 90 days or less.

“No amount of money can make up for the evil done to victims of priestly sex abuse, but we can and must finish the job of compensating victim/survivors for the wrong that was done to them whenever it took place,” Bishop Robert W. McElroy said last May, when he announced the creation of the program.

The new law covers claims against all private and non-profit organizations, including Catholic dioceses, and most public agencies in California, including all local school districts, but excluding the state government agencies and the state’s university systems.

It also gives survivors more time to file civil lawsuits: up to their 40th birthday, compared to their 26th birthday under the current statute, or within five years (previously three years) from the date they discovered an adult psychological injury caused by the childhood sexual assault.

Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan said the San Diego Diocese did not oppose the bill, but along with other dioceses in California, did seek changes that would have made sure no victim was left out.

“While the bill significantly expands the number of victims who can come forward, especially persons who were abused in public schools, the bill does not revive claims against the state government or the state university systems,” he said in a statement. “We hope this will be addressed in ‘clean-up’ legislation.

“Ultimately, our hope is that all victims of childhood sexual abuse are able to have their pain and suffering addressed and resolved.”

He said that the new law would have no effect on the Independent Compensation Program administered by respected attorneys Ken Feinberg and Camille Biros. Their goal is to offer settlements to qualifying victims within 90 days of the completion of their applications. Victims who reject an offer may still file a lawsuit in court.

The program will remain open to any victim-survivor who believes they were abused by a priest of the San Diego Diocese and who has not previously settled their claim. Information about the program in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, along with instructions of how to file a claim, is found at www.CaliforniaDiocesesICP.com. 

Starting in 2002, the diocese implemented sweeping reforms at parishes and schools to prevent abuse and to support victim-survivors. These include “zero tolerance,” for instance, permanent removal from ministry of clergy who abuse minors and vulnerable adults; criminal background checks for all clergy, teachers, staff and volunteers who work with children; annual Safe Environment training for students in Catholic school and religious education, and regular training for all clergy, teachers, staff and volunteers to help spot and prevent abuse.

While it may or may not be a result of the reforms, the diocese has not had a confirmed incident of sexual abuse of a minor by any of its priests in the last 20 years, records show to date. (Details of the diocese’s Safe Environment Program are found on the page www.safeinourdiocese.org.)

“Beyond following procedures, however, it’s about doing the right thing,” Auxiliary Bishop Dolan said. “We have a moral, legal and spiritual obligation to protect the children and young people in our care. We have the same obligation to reach out and assist victim-survivors of abuse at the hands of clergy and Church workers.”

The California Legislature lifted the statute of limitations in 2003 for one year, allowing victims to sue private organizations for childhood sexual abuse that had occurred even decades before. The San Diego Diocese paid $198 million to 144 victims to settle the lawsuits that ensued in the following years.

When he announced the creation of the Independent Compensation Program in May, Bishop McElroy said settlements would come from diocesan funds or insurance. And that no parish resources would be used nor contributions from the Annual Catholic Appeal.

In his announcement, the bishop stressed that the goal of the program was to help victims and their families to heal.

“I ask you to keep the victim/survivors of priestly sex abuse in your prayers, that they may feel the healing touch of a faithful and loving God.”

The Southern Cross

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