California Sex Abuse Bill Could Open Door to Palma Lawsuits
By Julia Reynolds
September 6, 2013
After several fits and starts, a bill extending the statute of limitations for some childhood sexual abuse victims was approved by the California Legislature on Friday — paving the way for possible lawsuits against Palma High School in Salinas.
Nine people who say they were abused by priests while attending Palma may be among the first to sue if Gov. Jerry Brown doesn't veto the bill, known as SB 131.
The bill extends the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims.
Seven of the nine former Palma students say they were sexually assaulted by the Rev. Gerald Funcheon when he was a chaplain at the school from 1984-85. Funcheon, who is still a priest but is housed in a secure "treatment" facility, admitted in sworn testimony last year that he molested one of the men, but denied the others.
The two other alleged victims say they were molested by Brother Marcos Chavira and the late Brother Jerome Heustis.
So far, none of the nine has sued the school, and Palma spokesman Kevin Elliot said Friday he had not heard of any out-of-court legal settlements.
Attorney Michael Pfau, who represents the nine men, said some settlement talks had taken place but haven't gotten far.
He did vow to go through with filing lawsuits for all nine against Palma if the new law goes into effect as scheduled on Jan. 1, 2014, and said there may be more plaintiffs.
Palma historically has been affiliated with the Irish Christian Brothers, which in March announced a massive settlement with alleged abuse victims. But because Palma is a separate corporation, its assets were not included in the settlement.
Still, the nine alleged Palma victims were included among 400 people who will share the $18 million settlement because the priests who allegedly abused them worked for the Irish Christian Brothers.
The new legislation in California was proposed in response to a current statute that bars civil action after a victim of child molestation turns 26.
Under the new bill, a victim could file a lawsuit against an institution responsible for employing a child molester up to age 30, or five years from when that victim discovers his or her adult psychological problems are related to the abuse — whichever is later.
It also opens a one-year window that would revive some older cases barred by an earlier statute of limitations.
The bill failed to clear an Assembly committee last month but was reconsidered. A week later, it was cleared for a vote.
After impassioned debate Wednesday, the Assembly passed the bill, and on Friday, the Senate followed suit with a 21-8 vote.
Critics speaking on the Assembly floor said the bill benefits lawyers more than victims, and said it discriminates between victims because it doesn't allow lawsuits against public schools and other government entities.
Across California, the Catholic Church has lobbied heavily against the bill.
The Diocese of Monterey's website contains a plea to its congregation to fight SB 131, saying it singles out and encourages claims against churches, private schools, private universities and community groups while preventing victims from suing public schools.
Pfau called such arguments "a red herring to divert attention from the purpose of the bill."
He said the goal of SB 131 "is to give abuse victims legal recourse, and I think that's a positive thing."
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or firstname.lastname@example.org