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K. J. v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Stockton

April 10, 2009


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Joaquin County, Elizabeth Humphreys, Judge. Affirmed. (Super. Ct. No. CV032693).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Butz, J.


This case requires us to unravel the many changes and revisions to Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1,*fn1 a special statute of limitations governing claims by victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Plaintiff K.J. (suing under the fictitious name of "John K.J. Doe") alleges he was sexually abused and molested by "Doe 4," an unnamed priest and agent of defendant The Roman Catholic Bishop of Stockton (the Bishop), when plaintiff was between seven and 11 years of age. According to the complaint, the Bishop condoned the misconduct and protected Doe 4, despite actual or constructive knowledge that the priest was a chronic child molester.

Plaintiff, now well into middle age, alleges he "immediately repressed" all memory of the acts of molestation at the time they occurred. Only in June 2004, 33 years after the last molestation occurred, did plaintiff begin remembering the sexual abuse perpetrated upon him by Doe 4, when he connected it to his current psychological problems.

In 2002, when the Legislature amended section 340.1 by opening up a one-year "revival window" for bringing time-barred childhood sexual abuse claims against third party defendants, it also established a new outer date for bringing these types of claims, to wit: "within three years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by the sexual abuse . . . ." (§ 340.1, subd. (a).) The question on appeal is whether the quoted language applies retroactively to childhood sexual abuse claims against entity defendants that had already lapsed by virtue of the statute of limitations. We agree with the trial court that the answer to this question is "no." Plaintiff's claims are time-barred. We shall affirm.


The Complaint

This action was filed on May 31, 2007, by plaintiff who, by then, was either 47 or 48 years old.*fn2 From 1967 to 1971, plaintiff was an altar boy and parishioner at defendant "Doe 3," a Catholic church and school, wholly owned and operated by the Bishop and defendant "Doe 2." During that time, when he was between the ages of seven and 11, plaintiff came under the direction and control of "Doe 4,"*fn3 a priest and seminarian at the church, who used his position of trust and authority to sexually harass, molest and abuse plaintiff.

Plaintiff alleges, on information and belief, that the Bishop "knew or should have known and/or [was] put on notice of DOE 4's past sexual abuse of minors, past arrests, charges, claims and/or investigations, and his propensity and disposition to engage in . . . unlawful sexual activity with minors such that Defendant[] knew or should have known that DOE 4 would commit wrongful sexual acts with minors, including Plaintiff." Instead of implementing reasonable safeguards to protect Doe 4 from contact with minors, the Bishop ignored and/or covered up the sexual abuse of minors that had already been perpetrated by Doe 4. The cover-up was part of a "conspiratorial plan" to conceal wrongful acts, avoid detection, block public disclosure of child sexual molestation and abuse, and preserve a false appearance of propriety.

The complaint contains a lurid description of the sexual abuse perpetrated on plaintiff by Doe 4, which acts took place "a few times a week," and sometimes were performed on church premises and within full view of other priests.

Despite the frequency and horrendous nature of the acts, plaintiff alleges that he "immediately repressed all memories" and "had no awareness" of them. It was not until June 2004, that plaintiff "began remembering" the sexual abuse that was perpetrated on him as a child more than 30 years ago. At that time, plaintiff "discovered" that psychological injuries and illnesses he was experiencing were caused by the childhood sexual harassment he suffered at the hands of Doe 4.

Based on these general allegations, plaintiff posits causes of action against the Bishop for negligence, negligent supervision, negligent hiring and retention, negligent failure to warn, train or educate, constructive fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Procedural History

The Bishop demurred to the complaint, asserting that because plaintiff's childhood sexual abuse claims had lapsed under then-applicable statutes of limitations and were not brought within the one-year revival window provided for in the 2002 amendment to section 340.1, they were untimely. Plaintiff maintained that his claims were governed by the "delayed discovery" rule of section 340.1, subdivision (a) so that it was timely if brought within three years of the date he reasonably should have discovered that his adult psychological injury was caused by the childhood sexual abuse.

The trial court, relying on the decision in Hightower v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 759 (Hightower), agreed with the Bishop and sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. Plaintiff appeals from the final judgment of dismissal.


I. Applicable Principles

Because this appeal arises from a judgment of dismissal following the sustaining of a demurrer without leave to amend, we give the complaint a reasonable interpretation, and treat the demurrer as admitting all material facts properly pleaded. (Doe v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 42 Cal.4th 531, 543.) "We apply well-established principles of statutory construction in seeking 'to determine the Legislature's intent in enacting the statute "'so that we may adopt the construction that best effectuates the purpose of the law.'"'" (Shirk v. Vista Unified School Dist. (2007) 42 Cal.4th 201, 211 (Shirk).) The statutory language is generally the most reliable indicator of legislative intent. However, if the statutory language may reasonably be given more than one interpretation, courts may consider various extrinsic aids, including the purpose of the statute, the evils to be remedied, the legislative history,*fn4 public policy, and the statutory scheme encompassing the statute. (Ibid.)

II. Analysis

"Section 340.1 sets forth a special statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse." (County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 1263, 1268.) It therefore prevails over more general statutory limitations periods that may apply. (Aetna Cas. etc. Co. v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. (1953) 41 Cal.2d 785, 787.)

A. The Bishop Is a Subdivision (b)(2) Defendant

Section 340.1 contains varying limitations periods for bringing actions for childhood sexual abuse*fn5 against different groups of defendants. Deciphering the statute is rendered more complicated by the fact that these limitations periods have been amended several times over a span of years. To clarify our analysis at the outset, we observe that the Bishop is being sued as a defendant identified in subdivision (b)(2) of the statute.

Collectively, subdivisions (a) and (b)(1) of section 340.1 permit a cause of action for childhood sexual abuse to be brought against a nonperpetrator defendant within three years of the date of the discovery of the psychological injury caused by the abuse, but not later than the victim's 26th birthday. (§ 340.1, subds. (a), (b)(1).) Subdivision (b)(2) creates an exception to the age 26 cap for bringing claims against third party defendants who had actual or constructive notice of their agent's unlawful sexual misconduct, but failed to prevent it. "The words of subdivision (b)(2) create three conditions that must be met before it applies to a particular case: (1) the nonperpetrator defendant 'knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice'; (2) that the perpetrator--'an employee, volunteer, representative, or agent'--had engaged in 'unlawful sexual conduct'; and (3) 'failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by that person, including, but not limited to, preventing or avoiding placement of that person in a function or environment in which contact with children is an inherent part of that function or environment.'" (Doe v. City of Los Angeles, supra, 42 Cal.4th at p. 545.)

Plaintiff alleged that the Bishop knew or should have known of Doe 4's past sexual abuse of minors, parishioners and students under his charge, yet failed to take reasonable safeguards to prevent him from coming into contact with children such as plaintiff; he also alleged that the Bishop covered up such abuse and permitted Doe 4 to be placed in a situation that enabled him to continue to sexually abuse plaintiff. Accordingly, ...

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