Two recent California child sexual abuse cases ruled upon by the Supreme Court of California looked at violations of trust in two distinct institutional settings: sex abuse by clergy and sex abuse by teachers. One case was decided in favor of the student plaintiff, while the other decision set back an action brought by a group of former parishioners.

The cases looked at two issues common to civil actions against schools and churches: to what extent an institution can be held liable for the actions of employees, and the statute of limitations for sex abuse lawsuits brought by adults for harm they suffered as children. They also underscore one common aspect of these cases: people who suffered molestation or other abuse at the hands of adults sometimes have to exhaust their legal options in pursuit of justice.

Affirming a School’s Duty to Protect Students From Sexual Conduct and Contact

The first case, C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School Dist., involved allegations of sexual abuse against a high school guidance counselor. The minor plaintiff sued the school district and the school’s head counselor based on claims of sexual harassment and abuse, including compelling the 14-year-old student to engage in sexual activities. According to the trial record, the counselor spent a great deal of time with the student away from the school and even drove him home every day.

The student also alleged that district personnel knew that the counselor had previously engaged in sexual conduct with minors. He also alluded to school records that documented incidents of inappropriate sexual contact and conduct by other teachers, coaches, advisors, mentors and staff, as well as previous incidents involving the counselor in question.

The school district argued that there was no statutory authority for suing a public entity for negligent supervision, hiring or retention of employees who are accused of such behavior. The trial court agreed, and dismissed the complaint with respect to the district.

After a divided Court of Appeal panel affirmed that decision last year, the Supreme Court of California unanimously held that public school districts can be held vicariously liable for sexual misconduct under a section of California’s government code that creates public entity liability for injuries caused by employees within the scope of employment. The court emphasized that a plaintiff must provide clear evidence of administrative negligence to sustain such a claim, and noted that the greater share of fault in such cases will ordinarily lie with the employee.

Statutes of Limitations for Sex Abuse Claims Against Clergy

Just three weeks later, the California Supreme Court again weighed in on an important child sexual abuse issue in Quarry v. Doe. In that case, a group of six brothers sued the Roman Catholic Bishop of Oakland, alleging negligence in allowing a priest to commit acts of sexual abuse against them when they were children.

The men alleged that they had all been sexually abused and molested by an associate pastor while they were altar boys at the St. Joachim parish in Hayward, California, during 1972 and 1973. In a deposition for another church sex abuse case, the priest had admitted to sexually abusing the brothers.

The case centered on California’s childhood sexual abuse civil action statute, which currently states that an action must be commenced within eight years after the plaintiff becomes an adult, or within three years of the date of discovery of the “psychological injury or illness” that was caused by the sexual abuse. The trial court dismissed the claims, the Court of Appeal reversed and the church appealed.

The plaintiffs argued that they satisfied the statute of limitations because their claim was based on adult psychological injuries suffered in 2006 when the priest confessed to sexual misconduct. But a divided Supreme Court disagreed, holding that those injuries were not sufficiently distinct from their childhood injuries to cause a new claim to accrue. Because the claims expired when each plaintiff turned 26 – and again after a one-year revival period caused by amendments to the law regarding delayed discovery of psychological injuries – the high court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the child molestation and abuse lawsuit.

Holding Abusive Authority Figures and Their Employers Accountable for Sexual Misconduct

Child molestation cases involve emotional trauma, buried secrets and egregious violations of trust. Our society and laws have come a long way in recent decades to empower child sexual abuse victims to stand courageously to implicate their abusers and pursue legal damages from the organizations that harbor them.

When the legal process requires a plaintiff to articulate new theories of liability or argue for reinterpretations of established law, a child abuse lawyer must understand the latest legal developments and work tirelessly to advance the case. Whether the claim is settled in pretrial negotiations or advances to a final resolution in appellate courtrooms, diligent preparation and steadfast advocacy can help clients pursue a positive legal outcome.