Advocates, lawyers and victims across the state on Monday lauded a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom allowing victims of childhood sexual assault more time to file lawsuits.
Assembly Bill 218 affects those abused in many walks of life, from Olympics swimmers and schoolchildren to Boy Scouts and young Catholic churchgoers.
The bill, signed by the governor on Sunday and taking effect Jan. 1, gives victims of childhood sexual abuse either until age 40 or five years from discovery of the abuse to file civil lawsuits. The previous limit had been 26, or within three years from discovery of the abuse.
It also allows victims of all ages three years to bring claims that would have otherwise been barred due to existing statutes.
‘Chance for me to heal’
For victims like John E. Hanson, a 55-year-old resident of Goodyear, Arizona, who alleges he was sexually assaulted by now-defrocked Orange County priest Richard T. Coughlin in the mid-1970s, AB 218 offers hope for at least a modicum of justice.
“It’s a chance for me to heal and move on,” he said Monday in a phone interview. “It’s also a chance for others to heal and move on.”
The Southern California News Group does not identify sexual assault victims, but Hanson gave permission for his name to be published.
Hanson said he was a 10-year-old attending Linda Vista Elementary in Orange when Coughlin, founder of the All American Boys Chorus, brought the singing group to the school.
Coughlin allegedly followed Hanson into a bathroom on campus, forced him into a stall and sexually assaulted him.
The incident left Hanson, who has never before publicly discussed the encounter, with deep emotional scars.
“That one incident left me emotionally as a 10-year-old for my entire life,” he said. “I’ve never moved on from it. I’ve never been married. I didn’t want to do anything with school and I’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. It’s affected every aspect of my being.”
Coughlin, who over the years has been accused of sexual abuse by at least a half-dozen people, resulting in more than $3 million in settlements, was removed from the priesthood by the Dicoese of Orange in 1993.
Victim definition broadened
Irvine attorney Morgan Stewart, who specializes in litigation involving victims of childhood sexual assault, said AB 218’s change of terminology from “childhood sexual abuse” to “childhood sexual assault” broadens the definition, making it easier to bring a claim.
California is at least the third state this year to pass such a law. Earlier this year, New York and New Jersey raised their statutes of limitations to age 55. New York also suspended its statute of limitations for one year, leading to hundreds of lawsuits against hospitals, schools, the Roman Catholic Church and the late financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Irvine attorney John Manly, a partner of Stewart’s at the firm Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, said in a statement Monday, “The signing into law of Assembly Bill 218 represents a bipartisan effort by the Legislature and the governor to fight the scourge of childhood sexual abuse throughout California.”
‘Powerful institutions on notice’
Manly said the law “will put powerful institutions like the Catholic hierarchy, our public schools and youth sports leagues on notice that they cannot allow predators to molest children, cover up their crimes and escape responsibility.”
Manly, Stewart & Finaldi represents more than 700 victims of sexual abuse and assault and has recovered more than $2 billion for their clients through jury verdicts and settlements, including multiple victims of sexual abuse at the Redlands Unified School District.
A yearlong Southern California News Group investigation revealed that Redlands Unified paid out more then $30 million to settle sex abuse lawsuits against the district since 2013. For years, the school district covered up allegations of sexual abuse involving students, allowed teachers to continue preying on students, and ordered teachers and other staff not to cooperate with police during criminal investigations.
Administrators at Redlands Unified did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Much of the opposition to AB 218 in California came from school districts, which warn the law goes too far. Lawsuits filed up to four decades after the fact make it much more difficult to gather evidence because witnesses are more likely to have moved away or died. Plus, the law changes the legal standard for liability, making it easier for victims to win in court.
And if victims can prove entities tried to cover up the abuse, the court can multiply the damages by three.
“We don’t want to minimize or trivialize the trauma that’s associated with inappropriate sexual conduct in schools,” said Troy Flint, a spokesman for the California School Boards Association. “This bill has a very real chance of bankrupting or impoverishing many districts which would inhibit our ability to properly serve today’s students and students in years to come.”
Rahul Ravipudi, a partner at the Los Angeles law firm Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, which specializes in representing victims of sexual assault, said in a statement Monday that the new law will allow an untold number of Californians who were sexually assaulted as children to finally get their day in court.
“No matter when the abuse took place, survivors across the state now have three years to file suit. It’s time to hold accountable the institutions that have allowed, and even enabled, the abuse of children for far too long,” Ravipudi said.
Boy Scouts wants victims ‘to come forward’
His law firm, along with the Seattle law firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, announced Monday they have teamed up and plan to file dozens of lawsuits in Southern California against the Boy Scouts of America on behalf of clients who alleged they were sexually abused while in the Scouts.
Lawyers learned in 2012 that the BSA secretly kept detailed records on thousands of adult volunteers that it deemed “ineligible” to volunteer, primarily due to sexual abuse of children, according to a joint news release emailed Monday on behalf of both firms. BSA’s corporate records also indicate that the organization chose for decades not to tell Scouts, their parents or the public about the danger of sexual abuse in Scouting.
The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement Monday it has taken steps to help victims.
“First and foremost, we care deeply about all victims of child abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting, the Boy Scouts of America said in a statement. “We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children.
“We believe victims, we support them, we pay for unlimited counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward. It is Boy Scouts of America policy that all incidents of suspected abuse are reported to law enforcement.
Today, the statement said, the Boy Scouts has enacted safeguards such as mandatory youth protection training, mandatory background checks, a ban on one-on-one interactions, mandatory law enforcement reporting, and a volunteer screening database to help keep children safe.
“These layers of youth protection are among the strongest safeguards found in any youth-serving organization,” the statement said.
Legal loopholes erased
Robert Allard, a Bay Area attorney who has represented several alleged sex abuse victims in cases against USA Swimming and other Olympic sports organizations, said: “California has finally recognized that other characteristics have to be taken into account in these cases such as memory, things like guilt and shame. These cases are different.
Sports organizations, he said, “are no longer going to be able to hide behind legal loopholes.”
Allard says he is aware of a dozen cases against USA Swimming that could be revived by the new law”The vast majority of those claims were turned away because loopholes,” he said.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest support group for victims in the U.S., praised the enactment of AB 218.
“Californians can be proud of their leadership on this issue,” SNAP said in a statement Monday. “With AB 218 signed into law, California is now the latest state to pass sweeping reform to their civil statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse. These changes come as more states around the country are amending their laws to reflect the realities of sexual violence.”
The average age that sex abuse victims feel comfortable coming forward is 52 and, by that time, they are barred by the statute of limitations, according to the statement.
“Fortunately, for the next three years that is no longer the case for victims in California,” SNAP said. “By opening a window to justice and allowing survivors whose cases were previously barred by statute of limitation to be heard in court, important information can be exposed that can help create safer, more informed communities.”
Law ‘a step forward,’ Catholic Church says
The California Catholic Conference, in a statement ,described sexual abuse by members of the clergy as a “legacy of shame.”
“The Catholic Church has confronted this issue of child sexual abuse for more than two decades now,” the statement says. “It is a legacy of shame for all of us in the Church, and we are aware that nothing can undo the violence done to victim-survivors or restore the innocence and trust that was taken from them.
“Out of our past failures, the Church has made important reforms and put in place effective systems for the protection of children. Ultimately, our hope is that all victim-survivors of childhood sexual abuse in all institutional settings will be able to have their pain and suffering addressed and resolved and so our prayers are that AB 218 will be a step forward in that direction.”
Staff Writer Scott M. Reid and The Associated Press contributed to this report.