By Ashley Powers
A bill that would give some sex abuse victims more time to file lawsuits, which has drawn fierce opposition from the Catholic Church, failed to get enough support Wednesday to make it out of a key legislative committee.
The bill, which needed nine votes to leave the lower house's appropriations committee and go to the Assembly floor, mustered only six. Four committee members opposed the bill and seven did not weigh in after an emotional hearing that included testimony from a lobbyist who is also a sex abuse survivor.
The panel, which mainly considers how much a proposal would cost the state, will take up SB 131 again next week. It has already passed the state Senate and the Assembly judiciary committee.
The bill would, in part, lift the statute of limitations for one year to allow certain victims to sue private or nonprofit employers who may have failed to protect them from known molesters. Supporters say sex abuse victims need extra time to file lawsuits because it often takes decades for them to admit that they were molested.
A key question for the committee is whether new lawsuits would strain an already overburdened court system. At the height of the clergy abuse scandal in 2002, the legislature signed off on a similar one-year window. Hundreds of people filed claims, many of them against the Catholic Church.
The church, which in recent years has quashed similar bills in other states, has led the battle against SB 131. Opponents say the bill would financially cripple the church, leading to the closure of parochial schools and flooding public ones with students. They also argued Wednesday that the proposal unfairly targets private and nonprofit employers.
"You will be advancing a bill that proposes to hold one employer culpable and another employer not culpable for precisely the same behavior," said Ron Reynolds, a lobbyist for the California Assn. of Private School Organizations, whose members include Catholic dioceses.
The bill is far more narrow than the 2002 legislation, however, giving only certain victims abused decades ago more time to sue. Sen. James Beall Jr. (D-San Jose), who introduced the bill, said it would cost the state little money and also help victims who might otherwise need public services.
Testimony in support of the bill repeatedly turned personal. John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Assn., mentioned that he was a lifelong Catholic.
"I feel the argument that this bill will result in the diminution of Catholic schools to be offensive and disingenuous," he said.
Paula Treat, a lobbyist who is also a sex abuse survivor, testified that she had spent years in therapy grappling with abuse that began when she was in second grade.
"I go to sleep every night thinking that, had I been able to tell, other little children would not have been abused," she said. Her voice rising in anger, she added that she too had been raised Catholic and "I'm ashamed of my church."