Viewpoints: There should be equal justice for sex abuse

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2013 - 1:09 pm

To create a distinction between private and public entities would make a mockery of the Legislature’s stated intent to “ensure that victims severely damaged by childhood sexual abuse are able to seek compensation from those responsible.”

That’s a quote from a legal brief filed by Irwin Zalkin, one of the attorneys and co-sponsors of Senate Bill 131, authored by Sen. Jim Beall.

It’s doubly ironic, because discrimination against public victims of childhood sexual abuse is at the center of SB 131. It’s why the bill has developed such a broad and surprising coalition of opponents.

On the surface, SB 131 looks like serious legislation to deal with the rights of victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abusers by reviving claims that have died because the statute of limitations has expired. But scratch the surface andthere are serious concerns about how it addresses the problem. Why?

Because SB 131 isn’t about victims. It’s about lawsuits. If it were about victims, it would focus on the perpetrators of abuse and give new rights to all victims of sexual abuse, not just some of them.

Instead, SB 131 discriminates against the poor and less well off by reviving legal claims for child sex abuse only against private and nonprofit organizations like private schools or groups like Little League or youth soccer, but not against public schools, public agencies or government workers of any kind.

So if someone had been abused at Stanford or Santa Clara or some other private school or college, they could sue. But if they were abused by someone associated with a public school, or a city-run day care or a community college, they’re out of luck. The bill makes sure public schools and local governments have complete immunity – i.e. they cannot be sued – for any incidents of child sex abuse that took place before 2009.

SB 131 is written so poorly, in fact, that it won’t allow lawsuits to be revived against the actual perpetrator of abuse – just his or her employer.

This creates a two-track system of justice. If someone is from a family that can afford to send their children to private schools or participate in club sports, then SB 131 may provide them relief. On the other hand, if someone is poor or less well off and they go to public schools and public day care or participate on city-sponsored sports teams, they get nothing.

SB 131 is also a major retreat from how state government deals with child sex abuse. In 2008, the Legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 640, by Sen. Joe Simitian, which eliminated any distinction between public and private victims of child sex abuse, starting Jan. 1, 2009. SB 131 would turn that policy of nondiscrimination on its ear and tell victims who were abused in public schools that they are second-class citizens.

Pretty sad that the sponsors who so passionately argued for including victims of public schools are leading the charge to exclude them.

With Latino children now the majority of K-12 public school students in California, this is an unacceptable double standard. It’s why we have opposed SB 131, along with the California Association of Private School Organizations, the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, the California State Alliance of YMCA’s, the California Council of Non-Profit Organizations, the California Catholic Conference, USA Swim and dozens of private schools, religious groups and nonprofit organizations throughout the state.

Victims are entitled to equal justice and equal protection. Until SB 131 is amended by Sen. Beall to allow public-sector victims access to the courts under the same terms and conditions as private victims, we believe anyone concerned about fairness should oppose this bill.

Victor Garza is chairman of the La Raza Roundtable de California. Rose Amador is a La Raza Roundtable board member.

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