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Workplace Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Filed Against State Appeals Court Justice

WBS’s Kelli Burritt talked to Law.com about a new workplace sexual harassment lawsuit filed against LA-based State Appeals Court Justice Jeffrey Johnson who is accused of engaging in a widespread pattern of misconduct that demeaned, harassed and sexualized at least 17 women. Read More.

Sexual Predators Hiding Behind Dating Apps

By John Winer

Millions of Americans are using dating services to meet new people, but using them may come with a risk. A new investigation by ProPublica, Columbia Journalism, and Buzzfeed found that popular dating apps owned by Match Group including Tinder, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish, some of the most popular dating apps in the world, maybe harboring sexual predators, and company leaders are aware of this potential danger. As the use of dating services expands, companies behind these apps should have the moral and legal responsibility to screen users who are registered as sex offenders for the sake of its users.

Sexual Predators Hiding Behind Dating Apps

The investigation revealed that there were more than 150 instances of sexual assault involving dating apps, and approximately 10% involved users being matched with dates who had previously been accused or convicted of sexual assault. According to the report, most of the incidents occurred during first-time meetups in parking lots, dorm rooms and apartments. Mostly all of the victims met their attackers through the dating websites owned by Match Group.

While users of Match.com’s premium paid dating service are subjected to a background check that compares their name to state sex offender registries, it doesn’t take those same steps on the free services it owns. Match has previously agreed to screen for registered sex offenders to improve safety practices and issued statements promising to protect its users from sexual predators. As Match continued to evolve into Match Group and bought its competitors, the company didn’t extend this practice across its other platforms, allowing convicted and accused perpetrators to access the apps and leave users at risk of getting matched with a sex offender.

The investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations prompted the U.S. House Oversight and Reform subcommittee to launch an investigation into the safety of online dating apps for allowing minors and sex offenders to sign up for their services. The investigation is looking into companies’ procedures for verifying ages, as well as looking into any complaints of assault or rape they may have received, and what exactly they’re doing to combat the problem. In response to this, Match Group said it uses every tool possible to keep minors and perpetrators off its services and continues to invest in technology to keep users safe. Besides safety issues, the investigation also seeks to address concerns about data the services request to make matches, including sexual orientation, gender identity and drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

Although dating apps and services have grown, the companies behind the apps haven’t made much progress to ensure its users are safe. The lack of structured and mandated background checking across the apps has left users vulnerable to offenders, and now with more people than ever using apps, Match Group has the responsibility to deploy new tools to help verify that the people using its dating apps aren’t convicted perpetrators waiting to catch their next victim with a swipe to the right.

Weinstein Verdict a Watershed Moment for #MeToo

By John Winer

One of Hollywood’s darkest chapters is ending after a New York jury convicted movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and rape but acquitted him of predatory sexual assault.

It’s a vindication for the #MeToo movement which gave a voice to sexual assault and abuse survivors who feared no one would listen or believe them if they came forward.

Weinstein’s accusers are credited with triggering a sea change in the way our culture views sexual harassment. The outcry sparked a national conversation about toxic workplace culture and its stunning ripple effect resulted in the ouster of some of the most powerful and wealthy leaders in industries across the board.

The revelations uncovered in 2017 by brave and tenacious reporters with the New Yorker and the New York Times suggested Weinstein was one of the most prolific and protected sex predators of our time. He was accused of sexual harassment or assault by at least 100 women. Many of these accusations date back decades to a time when Weinstein leaned on his close connections with media outlets to suppress unflattering articles. He was notorious for enforcing nondisclosure agreements to silence his victims and threatened lawsuits against any reporter who attempted to dig deeper.

The response to the wave of negative publicity was swift and severe. The Weinstein Company he founded fired him, and both the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and Directors Guild of American quickly cut ties. A year later the disgraced Hollywood power player was indicted by a New York grand jury and arrested for rape and criminal sex act charges.

Weinstein’s month-long criminal trial focused on five charges involving two women. Jessica Mann said Weinstein raped her in a New York hotel room in March 2013 and Miriam “Mimi” Haley said Weinstein assaulted her in his New York apartment in 2006.

The prosecution presented six accusers who stunned courtroom observers with shocking and salacious descriptions about how the movie tycoon wielded his wealth and influence to harass, intimidate and assault women.

The defense attorneys did their best to put his accusers on trial, by forcing them to explain friendly email exchanges or rationalize why they engaged in consensual sex acts with Weinstein. In closing arguments Weinstein’s attorney urged jurors to use “common sense” and challenge the victims’ accounts of what happened.

This a common tactic to make the victim feel like it was all her fault, that her behavior caused the misconduct or that she could have somehow prevented the abuse by just walking away or ignoring phone calls. There is no consent when someone holds power over someone who believes they will lose a job, their reputation or their career because they refuse the perpetrator’s advances.

The accusers who testified did so as “MeToo” witnesses as part of the prosecution’s effort to show evidence of Weinstein’s pattern of behavior. After four days of deliberation, the jury rejected prosecutors’ argument that Weinstein was a “predator,” finding that the evidence failed to support the more serious charges, apparently because they did not believe the rape allegations of “Sopranos” star Annabella Sciorra. That underscores just how difficult it is to prosecute rape cases especially when it’s a “he said/she said” situation.

Weinstein’s legal troubles continue to mount after Los Angeles District Attorney, Jackie Lacey filed four more counts of rape and sexual battery in January 2020. The new charges involve two women who say Weinstein attacked them in hotels in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills in 2013.

Weinstein’s fate is partially the result of dozens of accusers who call themselves the “Silence Breakers”. They risked their personal and professional lives to speak out about sexual battery and abuse to shine a light on a dark and disturbing injustice. Advocates are hoping Weinstein’s guilty verdict will embolden more victims to report sex crimes, especially incidents that involving people in positions of power, which may result in more successful prosecutions of sex offenders.

April is designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month in California

April is associated with spring, and a chance to open up windows to let more light and fresh air inside. In a way, this image of spring is applicable to April’s national designation as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Sexual abuse or molestation is not a topic that many people feel comfortable talking about. But silence only allows the problem to persist and get worse. That’s why all Californians should participate in Sexual Assault Awareness Month: to expose this issue to the light of day in order to help victims heal and to prevent future assaults.

Chances are good that if you have not been a victim of sexual assault, you at least know someone who has. Statistics show that by the age of 18, one in four girls will be sexually assaulted. For boys, that number is one in six.

And many people mistakenly assume that rapists and molesters are strangers who attack opportunistically. Sadly, 80 percent of rape victims are actually abused by someone they know; and often, someone they have previously trusted. This could be a parent or other relative, a teacher or coach, a priest or other religious leader or a healthcare provider.

Sexual abuse or molestation can happen to nearly anyone, regardless of age or gender; but children and women are at particular risk. When sexual assault occurs, victims are often left with long-lasting psychological, emotional and physical scars. Speak with a San Diego molestation attorney.

But it’s important to remember that if you have been a victim of sexual assault, you are not powerless. In addition to pursuing criminal charges against your abuser, you may also be able to hold him or her liable in a sexual molestation civil lawsuit.

Even those of us who have never been personally victimized by this horrible crime should participate in Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Only by opening up communication and breaking the silence can we prevent future assaults and help victims heal.

Source: Lake County News, “April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month; community asked to help stop the violence,” Sheri Young, Apr. 1, 2013

Podcast: “America Out Loud- Let the Silent Voices be Heard”

From the Podcast: Few things are more powerful than faith. And few things are more devastating than when that faith is abused.

On this episode of Thread of Evidence, Dr. Joni Johnston talks with John D. Winer, an attorney who has prosecuted numerous cases of sexual abuse by religious leaders.

During the interview, they explore topics such as how victims typically come forward, how he evaluates the credibility of individuals who come forward, and how the legal process can help victims feel empowered after a life time of shame and suffering. Dr. Joni then talks to two victims of sexual abuse by a former church leader, who talk about their experiences and how they found the courage to speak out and to get justice.

Listen to the podcast or check out the full show on Thread of Evidence here.

Abuse Survivors Now Have More Time to Fight Back

Patrick Von Horn’s first memory of childhood abuse was of his mother screaming bloody murder after she witnessed a priest raping him. The horrifying attack is one of many instances of clergy abuse that Patrick repressed from his mind for decades until his mother’s death five years ago.

“At first, I was just thunderstruck by the memories and they cascaded out, one door opens the next and you don’t know when and you don’t know exactly why it is happening,” said Von Horn who is a resident of San Diego.

While some survivors may stay silent for years, that doesn’t mean the sexual abuse was okay or didn’t matter. It takes an unspeakable amount of courage to speak out and expose wrongdoing.

Stressful events such as childhood sexual abuse can hide in the shadows of the brain for many years as a means of self-preservation. It took the trauma of losing the steadfast support of his mom before 50-year-old Von Horn could access the terrifying memories of the abuse he suffered as a young boy growing up in southern California.

He describes his Irish-born mother as a devout Roman Catholic who had high hopes her son would become a priest or even a bishop. Von Horn spent a lot of time at his local parish as an altar boy. “I was being carefully guided and mentored in that you might say,” added Von Horn.

He now recognizes that multiple priests at different parishes in the Los Angeles area and San Diego sexually molested him which caused emotional and psychological trauma. Von Horn said the abuse left him psychologically damaged, chronically unemployed and dependent on his mother throughout adulthood.

“So, when my mother passed away, it really took a severe toll on me. I didn’t realize it was going to do that, had a mental breakdown,” said Von Horn whose story is heartbreaking but not uncommon for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. So often, it can take many years and even decades for someone to recover memories of molestation. That’s why a new California law is making such a big impact on sex abuse survivors who want to seek justice.

Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed AB 218 which takes effect January 1st, 2020 and gives childhood sexual abuse victims more time to seek justice through the civil courts. Under current law, victims of childhood sexual abuse could only file a lawsuit for damages before their 26th birthday or within three years of identifying a psychological injury or illness that was caused by the abuse. The new law extends the statute of limitations to five years after discovery or a victim’s 40th birthday. The law also opens a three-year window that allows victims of any age to sue on previously expired claims. The legislature tried several times in the past to pass similar legislation but previous Governor Jerry Brown vetoed those bills.

Before the law passed, Patrick had no legal recourse when he sought help from the Los Angeles archdiocese. “I think it is fair to say they threatened me. They knew I was down and out. I had no representation,” recalls Von Horn who said he felt strong-armed by so-called victim’s advocates hired by the church to pressure him into taking a small settlement. “They cornered me and a particular lady threatened me. She told me, look you are going to take a settlement and you are going to take the amount we give you,” Von Horn said.

Victims with cases that fall under the new guidelines are now empowered to seek justice on their own terms instead of signing agreements under duress. AB 218 will now help hold perpetrators accountable and will force organizations to take responsibility for ignoring red flags and allowing these predators to abuse children.

It has not been an easy fight, but public support has now shifted and there appears to be a consensus that we, as a society, must give sex abuse victims more time to process their trauma. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) who sponsored AB 218 said in a statement, “the idea that someone who is assaulted as a child can actually run out of time to report that abuse is outrageous.”

There’s a lot of suppression that occurs psychologically in these types of events and it’s very common for people not to recognize their abuse until they are much older and their intellect is more established. In adulthood, they can grasp the dysfunction in their lives and realize it’s likely the result of the abuse they suffered when they were very young.

One of the primary reasons people to come forward, years after the abuse, is because they have children. When their child reaches the same age as when they were molested, the victim feels compelled to speak out about what happened as a way to protect and to prevent the same trauma from happening to their child.

Von Horn now feels a sense of purpose with the passage of the new law and plans to file a lawsuit against the dioceses that allowed predator priests to hurt him. Von Horn knows that imprisoning priests and obtaining church payouts won’t give him back his lost childhood but sharing his story with the world can make a difference.

“I think whatever transpires, perhaps I could be an advocate in the future for saying I think this power needs to be taken away from them and given back to the people who make up the church,” he said. Von Horn is hopeful his efforts to speak out and to fight back will create positive change within the Catholic Church. “These people have shown themselves to be unworthy.”

You have the power to change how these painful events impact your life. By finding the courage to face the pain and accept that it wasn’t your fault, you can begin the process of healing.

John D. Winer is the founding partner of Winer Burritt & Tillis, LLP. His practice specializes in clergy abuse, sexual abuse, workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Abuse Survivors Now Have More Time to Fight Back

By John D. Winer

Patrick Von Horn’s first memory of childhood abuse was of his mother screaming bloody murder after she witnessed a priest raping him. The horrifying attack is one of many instances of clergy abuse that Patrick repressed from his mind for decades until his mother’s death five years ago.

“At first, I was just thunderstruck by the memories and they cascaded out, one door opens the next and you don’t know when and you don’t know exactly why it is happening,” said Von Horn who is a resident of San Diego.

While some survivors may stay silent for years, that doesn’t mean the sexual abuse was okay or didn’t matter. It takes an unspeakable amount of courage to speak out and expose wrongdoing.

clergy abuse lawyer in california

Stressful events such as childhood sexual abuse can hide in the shadows of the brain for many years as a means of self-preservation. It took the trauma of losing the steadfast support of his mom before 50-year-old Von Horn could access the terrifying memories of the abuse he suffered as a young boy growing up in southern California.

He describes his Irish-born mother as a devout Roman Catholic who had high hopes her son would become a priest or even a bishop. Von Horn spent a lot of time at his local parish as an altar boy. “I was being carefully guided and mentored in that you might say,” added Von Horn.

He now recognizes that multiple priests at different parishes in the Los Angeles area and San Diego sexually molested him which caused emotional and psychological trauma. Von Horn said the abuse left him psychologically damaged, chronically unemployed and dependent on his mother throughout adulthood.

“So, when my mother passed away, it really took a severe toll on me. I didn’t realize it was going to do that, had a mental breakdown,” said Von Horn whose story is heartbreaking but not uncommon for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. So often, it can take many years and even decades for someone to recover memories of molestation. That’s why a new California law is making such a big impact on sex abuse survivors who want to seek justice.

Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed AB 218 which takes effect January 1st, 2020 and gives childhood sexual abuse victims more time to seek justice through the civil courts. Under current law, victims of childhood sexual abuse could only file a lawsuit for damages before their 26th birthday or within three years of identifying a psychological injury or illness that was caused by the abuse. The new law extends the statute of limitations to five years after discovery or a victim’s 40th birthday. The law also opens a three-year window that allows victims of any age to sue on previously expired claims. The legislature tried several times in the past to pass similar legislation but previous Governor Jerry Brown vetoed those bills.

Before the law passed, Patrick had no legal recourse when he sought help from the Los Angeles archdiocese. “I think it is fair to say they threatened me. They knew I was down and out. I had no representation,” recalls Von Horn who said he felt strong-armed by so-called victim’s advocates hired by the church to pressure him into taking a small settlement. “They cornered me and a particular lady threatened me. She told me, look you are going to take a settlement and you are going to take the amount we give you,” Von Horn said.

Victims with cases that fall under the new guidelines are now empowered to seek justice on their own terms instead of signing agreements under duress. AB 218 will now help hold perpetrators accountable and will force organizations to take responsibility for ignoring red flags and allowing these predators to abuse children.

It has not been an easy fight, but public support has now shifted and there appears to be a consensus that we, as a society, must give sex abuse victims more time to process their trauma. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) who sponsored AB 218 said in a statement, “the idea that someone who is assaulted as a child can actually run out of time to report that abuse is outrageous.”

There’s a lot of suppression that occurs psychologically in these types of events and it’s very common for people not to recognize their abuse until they are much older and their intellect is more established. In adulthood, they can grasp the dysfunction in their lives and realize it’s likely the result of the abuse they suffered when they were very young.

One of the primary reasons people to come forward, years after the abuse, is because they have children. When their child reaches the same age as when they were molested, the victim feels compelled to speak out about what happened as a way to protect and to prevent the same trauma from happening to their child.

Von Horn now feels a sense of purpose with the passage of the new law and plans to file a lawsuit against the dioceses that allowed predator priests to hurt him. Von Horn knows that imprisoning priests and obtaining church payouts won’t give him back his lost childhood but sharing his story with the world can make a difference.

“I think whatever transpires, perhaps I could be an advocate in the future for saying I think this power needs to be taken away from them and given back to the people who make up the church,” he said. Von Horn is hopeful his efforts to speak out and to fight back will create positive change within the Catholic Church. “These people have shown themselves to be unworthy.”

You have the power to change how these painful events impact your life. By finding the courage to face the pain and accept that it wasn’t your fault, you can begin the process of healing.

John D. Winer is the founding partner of Winer Burritt & Tillis, LLP. His practice specializes in clergy abuse, sexual abuse, workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

State Worker Sues CA Department of Corrections for Workplace Sexual Harassment

October 9, 2019

Sexual Harassment lawyer in oakland california State Worker Sues CA Department of Corrections for Workplace Sexual Harassment

A new lawsuit filed by WBT against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation highlights how the state is failing miserably to implement new laws involving workplace sexual harassment. Several California state agencies have failed to provide sexual harassment training for all their supervisors as required by state law, and the number of people experiencing harassment in the workplace keeps climbing. 

A female employee who worked as a government program analyst in the division of Correctional Healthcare Services in Elk Grove claimed she experienced ongoing sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and retaliation from her direct supervisor. She claims she felt like she couldn’t report the misconduct due to the lack of system in the male-dominated bureaucracy. After her supervisor left the job, she alleges in the lawsuit, that his replacement began engaging in inappropriate behavior with the employee, including touching and kissing her and making unwanted sexual advances. After the incident, she reported the misconduct to her union representative, who did nothing to help her. Because the agency didn’t have a system to report the abuse, the employee was forced to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After reporting the misconduct, she suffered retaliation and bullying from her co-workers. 

This case underscores the mounting challenges that victims of sexual harassment face as state agencies grapple with training supervisors. It shows how woefully inadequate and futile the process is for implementing safeguards to prevent abusive behavior in the workplace. A recent investigation found that nearly 60% of agencies did not provide sexual harassment training, up from 25% in 2016 and 32% in 2017. The investigation also found that larger agencies, like the Department of Corrections, failed to train hundreds of supervisors while smaller agencies never bothered to train any personnel. According to the EEOC, another way to help fight the issue is by having organizations cultivate a culture of non-harassment, where employers have to set an example of model behavior and hold those accountable for preventing and responding to reports of harassment. 

At the height of the #MeToo movement, California lawmakers enacted a requirement that all employers with five or more employees would need to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees by January 1, 2020. However, in response to the negative response from the business community, Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed SB 778 into effect, extending the deadline for employers to provide the newly required sexual harassment prevention training to January 1, 2021. 

If you are experiencing harassment at work, it may be overwhelming and stressful, but it’s important to remember that you are not alone and that you have options when coming forward. Finding the right resources will help you better identify sexual harassment, advocate for yourself and others, and determine the next steps you should take.

California Restaurants: Worst Offenders for Sexual Harassment?

A recent special report in the California Business Journal highlighted the rampant problem of sexual harassment in the California restaurant industry. Winer, Burritt & Tillis’s partner, John Winer, featured prominently in the report as a legal expert. In this blog post, we summarize the report and discuss how California’s anti-discrimination laws seek to protect restaurant industry workers from workplace sexual harassment.

 

A Major Problem in the Restaurant Industry

The key takeaway from the special report is that the restaurant industry is rife with sexual harassment. In fact, according to the Business Journal, of all industries surveyed by the federal government from 2005 to 2015, food services ranked as the very worst in the number of reported cases of sexual harassment.

 

Female workers bear the brunt of the problem, although male workers also report experiencing sexual harassment on a regular basis. According to a 2014 survey by ROC United of 688 restaurant workers,

 

[T]wo-thirds of women workers and over half of men workers had experienced some form of sexual harassment from management; nearly 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers; and nearly 80 percent of women and 55 percent of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from customers.

 

Think about how significant those numbers are. According to ROC United, the restaurant industry employs nearly 11 million people in the United States. Its study suggests the vast majority of those workers endure sexual harassment at work, many on a weekly or daily basis, from one or more of their supervisors, coworkers, or customers.

 

Tip Work and Fast Food Environments Deepen the Problem

Two factors contribute significantly to the incidence of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. The first is tip work, which tends to place female servers, in particular, in the position of having to endure customer sexual misbehavior to earn a living. Servers who work for tip wages are less likely to report sexual harassment by customers because they fear retaliation from customers and supervisors if they speak up. This is a well-founded fear. As the Mercury News recently reported, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst study revealed that 64 percent of workers who report sexual harassment are terminated or retaliated against by their employers.

 

Workers in the fast food industry also face severe sexual harassment because of some common characteristics of the fast food workforce. Fast food operators often pay a relatively low wage and hire part-time workers who are young, vulnerable, and less likely to speak out against workplace sexual misbehavior. Recent lawsuits against Del Taco and Blaze Pizza here in California brought allegations that supervisors at the chains subjected teenage employees to unwanted sexual advances and comments at work. In the Business Journal report, John Winer points out that recovering damages against franchise restaurant operators such as these is difficult because California law limits workers’ ability to sue franchise companies for the behavior of their franchise owners in many (but not all) cases.

 

California Law Offers Strong Anti-Sexual Harassment Protections

Fortunately for California’s restaurant workers, state law enshrines strong protections against sexual harassment. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and its associated regulations broadly prohibit discrimination against employees, job applicants, volunteers, and independent contractors on the basis of sex/gender (including pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions), gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

 

Sexual harassment constitutes a form of illegal discrimination barred under FEHA. All California employers, no matter how many people they employ, have a legal obligation under the statute and associated regulations not to engage in, nor tolerate, sexual harassment in their workplace by supervisors, non-supervisory employees, customers, or others involved in their businesses. California employers must also:

  • Inform employees of workplace anti-discrimination laws;
  • Develop and distribute a written harassment, discrimination, and retaliation prevention policy (including a version translated into any language spoken by more than 10 percent of the employer’s workforce;
  • And, if the employer employs more than five employees, provide at least one hour of anti-sexual harassment training to all non-supervisory workers, and at least two hours of training to all supervisors.

 

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is the California state agency tasked with enforcing FEHA. When employers violate the law’s anti-discrimination provisions by engaging in, tolerating, or retaliating against an employee for reporting sexual harassment, or by failing to comply with the rules listed above, DFEH may take enforcement action against the employer. The employer may also face civil liability for damages to employees harmed by the discrimination.

 

Steps for Restaurant Employees Can Take

California restaurant workers who believe their employers have violated FEHA by sexually harassing them, permitting others to harass them, or taking adverse job actions against them for reporting harassment, can file a complaint with DFEH within one year of the incident, which initiates an official investigative process by the Department and may result in penalties against the employer and some form of monetary relief for the employee. They will want the assistance of an attorney to help them with this process.

 

Alternatively, employees who have experienced harassment at a restaurant can file a lawsuit against their employer, with the help of an experienced California sexual harassment attorney, after obtaining what is known as a Right-to-Sue notice from DFEH. The damages recoverable under FEHA may include back and front pay, reinstatement, an injunction directing the employer to take (or not to take) certain actions in the future, attorney fees and costs, compensatory damages, and punitive damages.

 

Finally, restaurant workers and their employers can take proactive steps to prevent harassment in the workplace. The owner and staffers of an Oakland restaurant last year made news with a color-coded warning system that helped them communicate with each other about problematic customers. When a server felt a customer had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior, the server could communicate her concerns to a coworker by using one of three words: Yellow (indicating a potentially problematic customer), orange (indicating the customer made troubling comments), and red (indicating the customer had acted inappropriately and should be asked to leave). The system isn’t perfect, but it did virtually eliminate red incidents as word got around that the restaurant would not tolerate customer-based sexual harassment.

 

Experienced California Sexual Harassment Legal Counsel

John Winer and his colleagues have extensive experience representing sexually harassed California restaurant workers. Winer, Burritt & Tillis offer compassionate, sophisticated advice to our clients to address and overcome the scourge of workplace sexual harassment. If you have questions or concerns about harassment or discrimination where you work, email our team today or call (800) 652-6137 to schedule a free and confidential case evaluation.

The Statute of Limitations Maze: The Labyrinthian Process of Catholic Sex Abuse Cases

by John Winer

After what seemed like a brief lull, various Dioceses throughout the United States are facing a steady stream of accusations from adults who, as children, were sexually abused by clergy in the Catholic Church. And, there seems to be a great deal of willingness on the part of elected officials to help streamline the process, something that did not exist in previous generations.

Throughout the country there seems to be a reawakening of these allegations as District Attorneys in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere have either brought new charges or released the names of priests and others accused of child sex abuse. Archdiocese of New York named 120 clergy who were “credibly accused” of child sex abuse and a law firm released another 300 names accused of abuse in New Jersey.

There is reason to believe the California government will change the civil statute of limitations standard currently in place. The change will allow adult survivors of sexual abuse while a minor to bring claims up to their 40th birthday. At the same time, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of adults will be changed from two years to 10 years.  This will allow California sexual abuse victims to have a far larger window to bring a civil case for monetary damages.

Even the Catholic Church has made serious attempts at drastic changes; Pope Francis issued a “groundbreaking” law that requires all Catholic priests and nuns globally to report any clergy sex abuse and cover-up by superiors to church authority. It also provides whistle blower protections for anyone who makes a report. The law makes the world’s 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters mandated reporters.

From the late 1990’s through the 2000’s there were numerous lawsuits filed against various dioceses throughout the country over sexual abuse allegations. Priests, nuns and other church leaders were accused of truly heinous crimes against defenseless children. These cases settled for billions of dollars, but more important they provided the victims and survivors of this sexual abuse to confront their accusers and air their grievances. While the process of holding the Catholic Church and its leaders accountable is important, it is also an arduous task for any lawyer or law firm to undertake. Discovery alone can be a monumental challenge when trying to uncover the truth behind an incident which occurred twenty or more years ago.

The culture of the Catholic Church, which goes back thousands of years, makes it extremely difficult to obtain information. Religious organizations in general try to avoid public controversy when dealing with a problem, but with so much history and so many years of alleged abuse, the Catholic Church has a long list of sins it would rather not make public.

In dealing with the Church, it’s hierarchical structure can be a nightmare to navigate. The idea of “mandatory reporters” should be simple, and it’s disturbing that the law should ever have to hold someone accountable for not reporting child sex abuse. But, in the Church where the position of Pope literally goes back to St. Peter and where religious hierarchy is a highly complicated structure, holding people responsible is extremely difficult. Civil litigation seems to have been the only way to hold Catholic officials responsible for their choices. And not just the pedophiles themselves, but the church leaders who either put violators into alleged treatment programs or transferred them to other parishes. The behavior of the predators and their protectors is equally as disgusting and much of it was only made public and dealt with through attorneys whose loyalty was with their clients and not an ancient religious institution.

There are 12 dioceses in California; San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno, Orange County, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Monterey, Stockton, San Bernardino and San Diego. Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, sent a letter to all of them requesting that church officials retain documents which could be relevant to allegations of clergy sex abuse as well as of mandatory reporting. Becerra even asked two dioceses in particular (San Francisco and San Jose) to turn over specific documentation.

Thankfully for those of us seeking justice for our clients the California Attorney General is actually helping to eliminate one of the major barriers to uncovering the truth – statute of limitations. Memory, both the memory of the victims and the memory of the law, becomes incredibly difficult to navigate when a 40-year-old man is trying to recount abuse he suffered when he was seven-years-old. It’s not that this type of trauma is ever forgotten, rather that finding proof for a judge and jury is a difficult thing. Statute of limitations rules have often allowed pedophile priests to skirt the law because their alleged crimes occurred years, if not decades, before their accusers came forward. What the Attorney General’s actions seem to acknowledge though is that how can the law or any individual expect a seven-year-old to have the wherewithal to confront his accuser in a specific period of time?

Predator priests, like many sexual predators in positions of authority such as Boy Scout Troop Leaders, find themselves protected by these statutes because it limits the period of time their victims have to call out their abuser. Most people go through long periods of personal anguish and shame before the thought of filing a lawsuit ever becomes an option. Changes to these rules will allow a far greater access to justice for men who lived in shame because they simply wanted to serve God and the Catholic Church.

After handling many sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church over the last 40 years, we have learned that the Church will take advantage of any law that it feels affords them protection. That includes the statute of limitations. The Church labels any effort to extend the statute of limitations as “anti-religious” completely ignoring the obvious fact that there is absolutely nothing “pro-religious” about clergy sexually abusing parishioners and then getting away with it because the nature of the abuse itself prevents victims from coming forward for many, many years.

John Winer is an attorney in California. He can be contacted at (510) 255-6638.

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