College Interest Group Opposes California Bill on Sex Abuse Liability

The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), a Sacramento-based interest group that represents higher education institutions, including the Claremont Colleges, and which has 5C officials on its Executive Committee, has lobbied extensively this year against a California bill that would allow some victims of child sexual abuse to sue the private organizations that employed their abusers.

The bill, SB 131, was approved by both houses of the California Legislature last month despite opposition from Republican lawmakers and a group of private organizations ranging from the AICCU to the California Catholic Conference. It will become law unless Governor Jerry Brown vetoes it by Oct. 13.

The bill would allow certain adults to pursue sexual abuse lawsuits that would otherwise be barred under current California law as interpreted by the state Supreme Court because the alleged violations occurred too long ago. It would not, however, change the existing laws that govern sexual abuse liability for state-run schools and other public institutions. 

Veronica Villalobos Cruz, a staff lobbyist at the AICCU, said that the Executive Committee voted to oppose SB 131 not because it revives some sexual abuse claims, but because it treats public and private colleges unequally. She said that she has met with legislators and their staff members to express the AICCU’s objection to the bill.

“We did not believe that it was fair, or that it was good public policy, to say that if the Sandusky case happened at a UC university, those victims would not be able to seek redress, but if it happened down the street at a private university, they would,” she said, referring to the child molestation scandal in the Pennsylvania State University football program.

The AICCU Executive Committee includes Scripps College President Lori Bettison-Varga and Claremont McKenna College trustees Fredric Prager and Raymond Remy CM ’59. All three said that they agree with the AICCU’s position on SB 131.

“I think we all had the same view, which was, ‘Why are you picking on us?’” Prager said.

Bettison-Varga wrote in an e-mail to TSL that the AICCU would not oppose the bill if it were expanded to cover public as well as private employers. 

“Opposing the bill as written is the only leverage available to gain equality in the pursuit of justice for victims of sexual abuse,” she wrote. 

Remy, the only one of the three from Scripps and CMC who attended the Executive Committee meeting in which SB 131 was discussed, said that the bill discriminates against children in public schools. 

“I think that the issue itself is one that should be looked at, but it should be looked at in fairness because the students are the same in all circumstances, public and private,” he said.

But Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who supports relaxing time restrictions for sexual abuse lawsuits, said that it is not unfair or unusual for a state to deal with public and private liability in separate statutes. It is misleading, she said, for opponents of SB 131 to argue that the bill unjustly targets the private sector.

“That is the typical tactic taken by private organizations in order to avoid getting any bill,” she said. “What they’re trying to do is to argue unfairness, when in fact what they should be doing is just pushing for the public side of it.”

In general, private employers who oppose bills like SB 131 are motivated less by financial concerns than by a desire to keep secrets, Hamilton added. 

“This is really a fight over the truth, and their instinct is to preserve the status quo, which is that the public doesn’t know the truth about their involvement with abuse,” she said.

Meghan Wallner PO ’15, a member of the Pomona College Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault who also works as a sexual assault crisis counselor in the city of Pomona, wrote in an e-mail to TSL that she is puzzled by the AICCU’s opposition to SB 131.

“The objection about how this bill doesn’t pertain to public universities, while valid, seems disingenuous the way it is used here,” she wrote, adding that public institutions are covered by separate legal provisions.

Wallner wrote that she hopes to see the bill become law, partly because of her experiences working with adult survivors of child molestation in the city of Pomona.

“Having seen the costs of childhood sexual abuse, which for some can only begin to be measured in therapy costs, psychological trauma, and lost opportunities, I support an extension on the statute of limitations in which survivors can petition for damages,” she wrote.

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