California is one of the most recent states to grant victims of sexual assault more time to file civil claims against their abusers. California joins a growing list of states providing sexual abuse victims new legal opportunities.
Many victims couldn’t file claims due to legal deadlines in previously existing laws. Now, additional victims can seek justice against priests who took advantage of their positions of authority and other institutional leaders who took steps to hide the abuse.
The California Child Victims Act
The new law is the California Child Victims Act. Lorena Gonzalez, a Democratic Assemblywoman from San Diego, sponsored the bill as AB218. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the proposed bill into law on October 13, 2019. It became effective on January 1, 2020.
The new law makes three significant changes to the previous law:
- The new law expands the maximum age at which someone may bring a claim for sexual assault from 26 years old to 40 years old. Alternatively, if a victim of child sexual assault discovers an injury in adulthood related to past abuse, the victim has five years from the date of discovery to bring a claim. The previous discovery rule allowed only three years.
- The new law provides a three-year window for persons of any age to file a claim. During this time, no case is barred by a legal deadline. The window opened on January 1, 2020.
- The new law allows victims to recover “treble” (triple) damages if the assault resulted from the defendant’s effort to hide evidence relating to childhood sexual abuse.
Once a jury has determined the amount of a plaintiff’s actual damages, certain statutes require the court to award three times the amount of the damages. These are known as treble damages.
Source: Cornell Law School
The California Child Victims Act is part of the national trend of state legislatures responding to systemic child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
Beginning with the Boston Globe’s 2002 reporting of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area, investigations into systemic abuse in other cities began. A 2018 investigation in Pennsylvania culminated in a 900-page Philadelphia Grand Jury Report. The report exposed more than 300 priests who abused more than 1,000 children throughout several decades.
In response, state legislatures began revisiting legal statutes affecting when victims can file civil and criminal claims.
States Change Statutory Limitations on Sexual Abuse Claims
Prior to California passing its Child Victims Act, several states passed similar laws in 2019. New York and New Jersey are recent examples. On August 14, 2019, New York opened a one-year “revival window,” during which previously expired claims can be filed (N.Y. Civ. Prac. L. & Rules § 214-g). The window is set to close on August 13, 2020.
However, if two proposed bills become law (i.e., SB 7082 & AB 9036), they will extend the window for another year, until August 13, 2021. New Jersey and New York now set the maximum age for filing claims at 55 years old (N.Y. Civ. Prac. L. & Rules §208 and N.J. Stat. Ann. §2A:14-2a).
Including California, 17 jurisdictions have reformed their statute of limitations by providing a revival window for expired claims or extending the maximum age at which a victim may assert a claim.
Likewise, 10 jurisdictions have eliminated the statute of limitations for specific types of child sexual abuse claims.
A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs are determined at the state level and vary based on the crime.
Victims Expect Justice through the California Child Victims Act
When New York opened its revival window in 2019, victims filed more than 400 sexual abuse claims on the first day. In less than one year, nearly 1,500 lawsuits have been filed. Approximately 28 percent of California’s adults are Catholic, so filings in California are expected to soar.
The Associated Press estimates 5,000 new cases will be filed under California’s new law. This could lead to total damages of $4 billion for the Catholic Church. Like numerous dioceses in other states, many California dioceses may be forced to file bankruptcy as a result.
AB 218, Chapter 861 (California 2019).
ChildUSA. (N.D.) 2020 SOL Summary.
Condon, B., Mustian, J. (2019, December 1). Surge of new abuse claims threatens church like never before. Associated Press.
Legal Information Institute. (N.D.) Treble damages. Cornell Law School.
Pew Research Center. (2015, May 12). Religious Landscape Study.
40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury. (2018). Report 1 [PDF].