Jerry Brown and Me
I’ve always had a lot of respect for Jerry Brown, starting back before he was Governor and I was a hippie nun.
Governor Brown has more political smarts than I, but I have a keener understanding of the effects of childhood priest abuse than he. We’ve lived very different realities.
Our experiences collided a couple of weeks ago when Governor Brown declined to sign into law SB 131, which would amend the California statute of limitations relating to claims of childhood sexual abuse. The bill seeks to amend and significantly expand a 2002 law to revive certain crimes that previously had been barred. Specifically, it would allow some victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek justice well after the current limit of 26 years of age.
The Statute of Limitations Needs to Change
Because a priest abused me when I was seven, I know how very long it can take for a person who has been abused and raped to come to terms with what happened to them. The difficulty is magnified for those abused by an authority figure such as a teacher or a priest. Imagine if you can, having a person who you’ve been taught represents God on earth take liberties with your young body. That’s a horrendous thing to face. Then imagine how long it would take you to overcome the fact that this supposedly godly person is backed up and protected by an edifice as huge and powerful as the Catholic Church. It took me nearly half a century.
In his clear and thoughtful veto message, Governor Brown writes:
“… due to a drafting error, the California Supreme Court held in 2007 that SB 1779 did not actually apply to public or governmental agencies.”
Entities – Including the Legislature – Need to Stop Shielding Perpetrators
The unfair fallout of this error was that public schools and government entities were shielded from the one-year revival of lapsed claims and victims of abuse by public employees could not benefit from the bill, while those abused by employees of private institutions could.
That was a serious mistake. It was unfair and wrong, and has never been made right. Piecemeal attempts have been made to fix the situation, with another bill – SB 640 –allowing for some victims associated with public institutions a longer window of opportunity, though only from 2008 forward.
The Real Fix for the Problem: The Statute of Limitations on Childhood Sex Abuse Must End
But this haggling over bits of law has never addressed the real problem, which is that there should be no statute of limitations at all on sexual crimes against children. It often takes many years before the details of such a traumatic childhood event can be safely remembered. And such memory does not always conveniently return within the magic span of eight years past majority. Even when it does return in time, the further stipulation that the victim must get everything in order to file a credible and provable suit against the perpetrator within three years is onerous, especially for those dealing with a lifetime of emotional problems caused by the abuse and the stresses caused by the returning memory of the abuse.
Meanwhile, serial pedophiles are excused for their heinous, destructive behavior because the institutions for which they work manage to protect and shield them long enough for their crimes to fall out of reach of the law.
Governor Brown had an opportunity to correct a small part of history by signing SB 131 and he should have done so. In his letter explaining his refusal to do so, the governor spoke of fairness:
“This bill also does not change the significant inequity that exists between private and public entities. What this bill does do is go back to the only group, 1.e. private institutions, that have already been subjected to the unusual “one year revival period” and makes them, and them alone, subject to suit indefinitely. This extraordinary extension of the statute of limitations, which legislators chose not to apply to public institutions, is simply too open-ended and unfair.”
He’s right in part, regardless of the harm suits may inflict on California’s finances, public institutions should be included. A better bill would cover all persons abused within every type of institution, whether church, corporation, public school or government entity.
Perhaps the bill isn’t perfect, few pieces of legislation are, as is ably illustrated by the checkered legislative history of this particular issue, and something needs to be done to redress this grievous wrong.
A good first step is for California legislators to overrule Governor Brown’s veto and give victims of private entities a longer span in which to seek justice. Let’s hope they have the courage to do it. Next they should amend the bill to include public entities.
And if they’re brave enough to do that, then lets ask them to lead the nation in eliminating the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children entirely.