CA Bill would exempt statue of limitations on some sexual abuse suits

Bill would exempt statue of limitations on some sexual abuse suits
August 20, 2013; 06:28 PM

David Nickell said the repeated sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest in 1980 still haunts him today.

Nickell, 45, of Riverside, looks back at years of “self-medicating” and drifting from job to job and relationship to relationship and believes at least some of the instability in his life is the result of what he said was sexual abuse he suffered when he was 11 and 12 years old.

“I’ve lost a lot of years,” Nickell said.

Current law does not allow Nickell to pursue legal action against the Diocese of San Bernardino, because the alleged abuse happened so long ago. But a bill now being debated in the state legislature would give Nickell and some other alleged victims one year to file suit, exempting them from the statute of limitations for sexual abuse.

A 2002 law granted a similar one-year window but supporters of the new bill say many victims don’t realize the effects of their abuse until later in life.

Nickell filed suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino in 2010. But his lawyers said a Los Angeles County superior court judge put the case on hold because it was unclear whether he and others who allegedly endured abuse many years ago had a right to pursue legal action against institutions such as the Catholic Church. The California Supreme Court last year ruled that cases such as Nickell’s could not go forward – leading to the introduction of the bill.

The priest who allegedly molested Nickell, the Rev. Ernest J. Hayes, died in 1990, according to diocesan records.

The diocese declined to comment on Nickell’s allegations – or whether other abuse allegations were made against Hayes – because the matter is in litigation, diocesan spokesman John Andrews said.

A state Assembly committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday, Aug. 21, on the bill. The same committee rejected the bill last week, but seven of the committee’s 17 members abstained or did not vote, prompting sponsor Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, to request another hearing. Six legislators voted yes. The bill earlier passed another Assembly committee and the Senate.

Opponents of the bill say the measure unfairly excludes public institutions from its coverage and opens the door to massive judgments for cases that are decades old.

Assemblyman Eric Linder, R-Corona, who abstained from last week’s committee vote, said the bill is “saying that people on this side of the street can create a heinous crime and people on the other side of the street cannot.”

Catholic dioceses in California have paid $1.2 billion as a result of lawsuits filed when the 2002 law lifted the statute of limitations for one year, said Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s dioceses and is lobbying against the bill.

“We have been there, done that and paid,” Dolejsi said.

Bishop Gerald Barnes of the Diocese of San Bernardino has talked with several Inland Empire legislators about his opposition to the bill, Andrews said.

Irwin Zalkin, an attorney for Nickell, defended the bill’s wording. He said the Catholic Church has an especially tainted history of dealing with abuse allegations.

“We don’t have the same history with public institutions of secrecy and cover-up and failure to report to law enforcement as we have with private institutions,” Zalkin said.

Nickell said he wasn’t aware of the 2002 law when it passed – and had put memories of what happened “in a closet in my head, and the door was shut.”

He said the memories returned about five years ago, when he saw media coverage of clergy sexual abuse.

“Now that I look back on it, I see my shame and my guilt, and I’m understanding why my life was the way it was,” he said.

Nickell said he was 11 years old when Hayes, of St. Anne’s parish in San Bernardino, began showing an interest in him. St. Anne is now part of the larger Our Lady of Hope parish.

Hayes sometimes took him out of class to spend time with him. They went to the movies. They joked around with each other. Nickell said Hayes hugged him and asked him for kisses on the cheek, sometimes when they were in public. That should have caused employees of the school and parish to become suspicious, Nickell said.

Then came the visits to Hayes’ room, Nickell said. The priest tickled him and asked him to sit on his lap. He gave him backrubs and caresses that increasingly became more sexual, Nickell said as tears welled up in his eyes, his hands shaking.

Looking back, Nickell said, he believes the priest was gaining his trust.

“It was all building up,” he said. “It’s like setting up the calf for the slaughter.”

At least twice the priest had stripped down to his underwear, Nickell recalled. He said he still remembers how Hayes wore garters to hold up his socks and the scent of Old Spice.

One day, Nickell said, Hayes did something to him so terrible that he couldn’t bear to talk about it.

He said he ran out of Hayes’ room crying hysterically – his face red from contact with the priest’s whiskers – to find his mother in the parking lot looking for him because he wasn’t waiting for her outside the church, as planned.

He said his mother took him to the diocesan headquarters that afternoon and after she talked frantically with a secretary, then-Bishop Phillip Straling came out.

Nickell recalled he was sobbing as his mother, visibly angry, told Straling what Hayes had allegedly done to her son.

“He told her, ‘How do you know that it happened?’” Nickell said. “‘Were you there?’”

Straling then noted there were no witnesses, he said.

“‘It’s his word against his word,’” Straling said, according to Nickell.

Nickell said that several years ago, after the memories came back, he and an attorney went to meet with two diocesan officials. The officials agreed to have the diocese pay for counseling but offered no emotional support as they talked to him, he said.

Nickell said the bill will help him and others get justice. But no matter what happens to the legislation, Nickell said he wanted to tell his story publicly.

“I’m just hoping this would help other people to want to come forward and seek help and know they’re not alone,” he said.

Also contributing: Staff writer Jim Miller: Follow David Olson on Twitter:@DavidOlson11