New California law eases path for sexual abuse victims

A young boy dealing with the aftermath of abuse. (Photo: 271 EAK MOTO, via Shutterstock)

Sexual abuse victims with decades-old claims say they are grateful to finally get a shot at justice through a new California law that widens the period in which civil claims can be filed.

The law, AB 218, went into effect Jan. 1. It allows a three-year “look back” window when victims can file civil claims regardless of when their abuse took place. In cases where the child became a victim because of an institutional coverup, the victim can collect triple the damages. In addition, going forward, victims of child sexual abuse will have until age 40 to file a claim, rather than 26.

“It’s about protecting kids, finding the truth and hopefully obtaining some sort of accountability.” — Tom Emens

The measure, authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, was signed in October by Gov. Gavin Newsom. “We shouldn’t be telling victims their time is up when in reality we need them to come forward to protect the community from future abuse,” Gonzalez said.

Tom Emens, 51, of Camarillo, is filing a claim against the Catholic Church regarding sexual abuse he said he experienced for nearly two years beginning when he was 10 in 1978. Monsignor Thomas Joseph Mohan, who died in 2002, lived near his family in Anaheim and had him over frequently to his house, where Emens said the abuse occurred.

Before the law passed, he wasn’t able to take action on his case because the statute of limitations had expired. Emens said his case and others like them are important to give the church a cleaning from the top down. “There are too many unknowns and too many secrets hidden,” he said. “It’s about protecting kids, finding the truth and hopefully obtaining some sort of accountability.”

Mike Reck, Emens’ attorney, said he has 300-to-400 cases ready to file under the new law right now. He said the new law is a “game changer” because it fundamentally changes how survivors of childhood sexual abuse are treated and supported.

Reck said it’s well known that it can take years for people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse to come to terms with what has happened and be able to make a claim. “Putting time limits on child sex crimes doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It does nothing other than favor abusers.”

“There is no way to turn that clock back or that lawyers or anyone can take away those memories or undo that trauma.” — Mike Reck.

A coalition of groups, including the Association of California School Administrators and the California Association of School Business Officials opposed the law, arguing that it will be impossible for employers to effectively defend against claims going back 40 years or longer when witnesses have moved or died any evidence is likely gone.

“The failure will result in diversion of funding intended to educate students and serve communities to financing increased legal costs whether or not the claim is valid,” the coalition said in a statement.

But Reck said it is worth it to pursue the claims through the court system as a deterrent to institutions from covering up abuse.

“There is no way to turn that clock back or that lawyers or anyone can take away those memories or undo that trauma,” Reck said. “What the law does is provide accountability and transparency. It confirms what happened was wrong, was not the survivor’s fault, that there were responsible adults that could have and should have protected them.”

“The only people who can do anything to protect kids are survivors.” — Joelle Casteix

Joelle Casteix, a sexual abuse victim and a board member on the Victim Policy Institute, which sponsored the new law, said because of rampant coverups throughout many organizations, abusers continue to work with kids.

She said the law is an important step in stopping institutions from hiding abuse. “Let’s stop making institutions save havens for predators,” she said.

Casteix said she was abused by a teacher while attending Mater Dei High School, a Catholic school in Santa Ana between 1986 and 1988 when she was 15-17. In 2005, Casteix won a $1.6 million settlement from the Catholic Diocese of Orange County. Because of other lawsuits, she said it’s now known that there were 13 predators at the school. She thinks there may be more but the school administrators haven’t said anything. “The only people who can do anything to protect kids are survivors,” she said.

She’s encouraged that the times have changed enough because of the Me Too movement, Times Up and the Epstein and Weinstein cases. Now, people are more ready to believe the victims and more victims are coming forward.

“A lot of this stuff needs to come to light. It has been kept in the dark so long.” — Gilion C. Dumas

Samuel Dordulian, a Glendale lawyer who represents sexual abuse victims, said that is what he has noticed. He has been getting two or three inquiries per day from victims interested in pursuing a case under AB 218. The oldest inquiry was from an incident of abuse that happened in 1968.

Dordulian said studies have shown that the average age of a person who speaks out about child sexual abuse for the first time is 52. The people who call his office are grateful that someone is willing to take their claim seriously. “They want someone to listen, accept them and not to blame them,” he said. “They say, whether you can do anything, at least you sat there and you heard my story.”

Gilion C. Dumas, a Portland attorney, is filing 20 cases under AB218 against the Boy Scouts, the Latter-Day Saints Church and a Bay Area school district.

She is representing 14 men who say they were sexually abused in the Boy Scouts in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Among the claims are that a boy scout leader provided kids drugs and sexually assaulted them.

She said the Boy Scouts has kept its own private list of predators since the 1920s but has failed to share that with families or communities.

“A lot of this stuff needs to come to light,” she said. “It has been kept in the dark so long.”

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