Little-known group aims lobbying effort at sex-assault case loophole

From today’s Orange County Register


A little-known group calling itself the California Council of Non-Profit Organizations has been working behind the scenes in recent months to defeat a state Senate bill which would extend the time limits in which victims of sexual abuse can file civil lawsuits.

The CCONO spent $75,195 during the first three months of 2013 lobbying against SB131, according to documents filed with the secretary of state. The organization has hired five firms since Jan. 1 to lobby against SB131, which passed out of the Senate last week on a 21-10 vote and now moves to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Article Tab: Charmaine Carnes and two other former gymnasts testified before a state Senate committee in May in support of SB 131, describing childhood sexual abuse by former coaches that has haunted them, altering the course of their lives.
Charmaine Carnes and two other former gymnasts testified before a state Senate committee in May in support of SB 131, describing childhood sexual abuse by former coaches that has haunted them, altering the course of their lives.

Introduced by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, SB131 calls for a one-year window for victims that were previously time-barred by statute to file a civil suit against their actual abuser or the employer of the abuser. This window would be open from 2014-2015. The bill follows a 2011 Orange County Register investigation in which more than dozen female former gymnasts said they were sexually and physically abused by their coaches in the 1970s and 80s.

Beall and SB 131 supporters argue that the accounts of child sexual abuse victims like the former gymnasts 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.

The California Council of Non-Profit Organizations is not to be confused with the California Association of Non-Profits, a group which counts 1,400 non-profits among its members. The CCONO is not a member of the CANP. The CCONO is also not listed on the Attorney General office’s registry of Charitable Trusts. The CCONO is also not listed on the Internal Revenue Services’ list of tax-exempt organizations that can receive tax-deductible contributions.

The CCONO has no website and it is unclear how many groups actually belong to it. The CCONO was incorporated on August 13, 2012, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s office.

Edward “Ned” Dolejsi is listed as the CCONO’s president. Dolejsi is the executive director for the California Catholic Conference. The CCONO’s listed address with the Secretary of State is the same Elk Grove address as Sweeney & Greene, a law firm with a long record of defending religious groups in sexual abuse cases. The CCONO’s incorporation’s documents were filed with the state by James Sweeney, a partner with the firm.

“Our firm’s attorney’s have extensive experience in litigation, including appeals and writs, the defense of sexual misconduct and harassment claims, commercial disputes, election law matters, campaign finance and political reporting enforcement actions, religious freedom and other civil rights claims, land-use matters, and political speech,” according to the Sweeney & Greene website. “The Firm’s clients include major public charities and associations, lobbying and advocacy organizations, California’s largest churches and religious organizations…”

Dolejsi said the CCONO opposes SB 131 because he said it singles out private schools and organizations, a charge that Beall and the legislation’s supporters deny.

In a recent interview Dolejsi was asked how many members the group had and whether the California Council of Non-Profit Organizations was actually a non-profit group.

“We have about eight or ten members, I can’t remember them all,” Dolejsi said. He listed California Association of Private School Organizations, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the YMCA and Police Athletic League as members but then added again he couldn’t recall the group’s other members.

Asked whether the CCONO had a web site, Dolejsi said “I don’t think so.”

Before 1990, civil cases alleging childhood sexual abuse had a one-year statute of limitations or had to be filed within one-year of the plaintiff’s 18th birthday if the abuse took place while the plaintiff was a minor. The legislature in 1990 rewrote the statute of limitations for cases involving adult trauma caused by childhood sexual abuse, extending the window to file civil suits for injuries resulting from childhood sexual abuse to age 26, or within three years of the date the plaintiff discovered or should have discovered that the psychological injury or illness was linked to childhood abuse.

In 2002, legislation was enacted that extended the statute of limitations in cases against third parties who were not the perpetrator of the sexual abuse but knew of the abuse or had reason to know of complaints against an employee or agent for unlawful sexual conduct and failed to take reasonable steps to avoid similar unlawful conduct by that employee or agent in the future. That legislation, SB 1779 (known as the Burton Bill), also created a one-year window in which victims could bring a claim against a third party when that claim would have been barred otherwise because the statute of limitations had expired.

Nearly 1,000 cases were filed in California during the one-year window in 2003. Approximately 50 additional cases were filed between 2005 and 2012 by victims who were over the age of 26 in 2003 but did not make a connection between childhood sexual abuse and adult problems until after 2003.

SB 131 initially proposed an extended statute of limitations from age 26 to 43 for victims to bring civil claims against their actual abuser or employer of the abuser. It also proposed extending the delayed discovery from three to five years giving victims five years to sue after they had linked injuries they suffered as a child. Both the age and five-year limitations in SB 131 were rolled back to the current statutes by amendments made while the bill was before the Senate appropriations committee.

“The best way to expose child predators, help victims heal and keep kids safe right now is by opening up the courtroom doors to victims of child sexual abuse,” said Joelle Casteix, Western Regional director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Casteix brought a lawsuit against the Diocese of Orange during the 2003 window, alleging that her choir teacher at Mater Dei High School had sexually abused her. Documents in the case showed that Mater Dei administrators, including the school’s principal, were made aware of the abuse but did not initially report the teacher to Child Protective Services as required by law. Although the teacher confessed to Mater Dei officials to also molesting two other students he was allowed to resign weeks later on his own terms.

“Unless victims’ have rights to use the justice system, experience has shown us that —time and time again—organizations will protect offenders over children,” Casteix said.

Dolejsi said during the interview he would provide the Register with a full list of CCONO members. When contacted the following day about the list , Dolejsi sent the Register a statement.

“It’s like I said last night, we have a non-profit entity, but more than that, we’re a group of like minded non-profits who come together as a coalition to work on different issues as needed,” Dolejsi said in an email. “We have supported legislation that responsibly deals with addressing child abuse, like the (Melissa) Melendez bill, AB 579 that I mentioned on third party criminal liability, (Ken) Cooley’s bill, AB 883 on prevention and programmatic response and some others that I don’t have with me. We opposed SB131 for the reasons I mentioned. Have a good night.”

Ron Reynolds, the executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, said the group was “affiliated” with the CCONO. A spokesperson for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was unsure whether the church was a member of the CCONO but said that the church did oppose SB 131. The YMCA did not respond to telephone calls and emails requesting comment. Charles McNeil of the California Police Athletic League wrote “We’re not familiar with them. Maybe we should be.”

Register staff writers Ron Campbell and Teri Sforza contributed to his report.

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2 thoughts on “Little-known group aims lobbying effort at sex-assault case loophole

  1. Great exposure of another “false witness” in the fight for children’s civil rights, recovery from childhood sexual abuse, and child protection.

    We ‘had’ the same type of ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ in Minnesota. They called themselves the “Minnesota Religious Council” yet they had nothing to do with religion or faith. They were established for the sole purpose of lobbying against correction of civil law, sexual abuse. — Bob

  2. Joelle, I find I’m of two minds about this legislation.

    I fully supported the first “window,” obviously. But then it closed. Once it was closed, the pressure was on for institutions to disclose and to be transparent, as the window was closed. Oh, there were those few attempts to punch through the SOL using the fraud approach, but they seem not to have gone very well.

    So we’ve been arguing for some time that, with the window closed, the institutions had no excuse not to be forthcoming and to disclose who their perpetrators were and when they offended.

    Only now, that argument is weakened; if there’s to be window after window, why should we expect institutions to disclose and to open up their records.

    Just this week I was preparing to make the argument that an institution with a recently-deceased perpetrator has no reason not to make details of his assignment record available to survivors. My argument was going to be “he’s dead, and the SOL window is closed, so disclosing can only help survivors to network and feel validated, without risk to your organization.”

    What do you think?

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