Sexual abuse victims seek more time to sue
The issue: Many victims of child sexual abuse do not come forward to reveal what happened for years after the crimes. By then civil and criminal statutes of limitations have often expired and the perpetrator cannot be punished.
Proposed bill: SB131, introduced by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, proposes that civil actions in child sexual abuse cases could be filed up to the plaintiff’s 42nd birthday or within five years of the date the plaintiff reasonably discovers that his or her psychological trauma is linked to sexual abuse.
Current law: Civil actions must be filed by the plaintiff’s 26th birthday or within three years of linking psychological trauma to sexual abuse. Forty-one states have separate statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits. Florida, Alaska, Delaware and Maine have eliminated the statute of limitations on civil sexual abuse cases.
Charmaine Carnes still remembers the sick feeling she had the first time her gymnastics coach sexually molested her.
“I was 8 or 9 years old the first time I felt dread. My coach, Doug Boger, was reaching into my leotard, then under it …” Carnes told the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
“Then I was silent,” Carnes said.
More than three decades later, Carnes and two other former gymnasts who said they were sexually abused by Boger spoke about the abuse that has haunted them, altering the course of their lives, and about how current law prevents victims from pursuing civil actions against the abusers.
Carnes, Ann Malver and Monica Lenches testified in Sacramento in support of a bill that would extend the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse civil cases. The bill cleared the committee later Tuesday.
“I’m here to put a face and a name on this tragedy,” Carnes told the committee.
SB131, introduced by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, calls for extending the statute of limitations to age 43 for a victim to sue the person who abused them. To sue the abuser’s employer, victims would have to file before they turn 31 years old. In either category, victims whose ages are higher than the statute of limitations will be permitted a one-year window to sue after the bill becomes law.
SB131 also would give victims a causal connection window of five years – compared to the existing three-year period – to file a lawsuit after the date of a finding by a mental health professional that their psychological trauma is linked to their childhood sexual abuse.
Under current state law, civil actions must be filed by the plaintiff’s 26th birthday or within three years of linking psychological trauma to sexual abuse. Forty-one states currently have separate statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits. Florida, Alaska, Delaware, and Maine have eliminated the statute of limitations on civil sexual abuse cases.
“We don’t have to be a backward state on this issue and right now we are,” Beall said in an interview with the Register. “This would be a landmark bill that would set the right tone for our society and declare that this is not acceptable in this state; we’re not going to remain silent on this issue. This will tell (abusers) it’s going to cost you if you decide to molest children. We’ve got to have a strong civil suit law to create another deterrent to this.”
Although the bill cleared a major hurdle by passing out of the Judiciary Committee by a 5-1 vote on Tuesday, it will continue to receive opposition from groups connected with the Roman Catholic Church, nonprofits, private schools and the insurance industry.
The bill, said John Norwood, a lobbyist for the California Council of Non-Profit Organizations, would create “an unmanageable statute of limitations from a liability standpoint.”
Beall’s introduction of SB131 follows a 2011 Orange County Register investigation in which 10 former gymnasts Flairs Gymnastics in Pasadena said they were sexually and physically abused by Boger in the 1970s and ’80s. Although Boger was barred for life from coaching by USA Gymnastics, he continued to train young gymnasts at a Colorado Springs gym near the U.S. Olympic Committee’s headquarters. Boger was fired two days after the Register’s investigation was published.
Boger has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Beall and SB131 supporters argue that the accounts of child sexual abuse victims such as the former gymnastics students demonstrate the necessity of extending the statute of limitations. Nearly half of all victims of child sexual abuse do not tell anyone of the abuse for at least five years, according to multiple studies. In the cases of many victims, the memory of the abuse is suppressed for years, even decades.
Boger’s abuse escalated to rape when Carnes was 11 or 12, she told the committee. “I still struggle with the memory of the stench of his body odor and the taste of cigarettes and beer in my mouth,” Carnes said.
After the abuse stopped, Carnes life slipped into a long downward spiral of abusive relationships, substance abuse, depression, self-esteem issues and burying herself in work, Carnes said in an interview with the Register last week.
“Once the abuse starts it psychologically sends your life spinning,” she said. “I’ve spent years spinning in the middle of this trauma. I’m still spinning to this day.”
But by the time Carnes, like her Flairs teammates, was able to link her psychological trauma to the sexual abuse through therapy, it was too late to pursue civil action against Boger under the current law.
Victims such as Carnes and her teammates, victims’ rights advocate Kim Goldman told the committee, have been “denied justice by a system that lets abusers run out the clock.”
“It’s critically important for these older cases to have a voice,” said Goldman, whose family shared in a $33 million civil judgment against O.J. Simpson. “The current statute of limitations protects no one but the abusers and the people who protect them.”
BY SCOTT M. REID / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER Contact the writer:firstname.lastname@example.org