“They’re arguing for more protection for institutions that allow molestation instead of more protections for children.”
Attorneys for sex abuse victims criticized Archbishop Jose H. Gomez and the Los Angeles Archdiocese for siding with L.A. Unified in opposing a lower bar to prove liability in such misconduct cases. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles abruptly dropped its support for efforts by the Los Angeles Unified School District to make it more difficult to hold institutions liable for employees who commit sexual abuse.
In a letter to the California Supreme Court this week, archdiocesan attorneys had objected to an appellate court’s ruling that plaintiffs only prove that an institution knew an employee had a “potential” for sexual abuse instead of a “dangerous propensity,” as the trial court judge had instructed jurors in the L.A. Unified case.
In that case, the district argued a 14-year-old girl was partly to blame for sexual abuse by her then-math teacher at Edison Middle School during 2010 and 2011. The teacher, Elkis Hermida, was convicted of lewd conduct with a minor and sentenced to three years in state prison, but the girl has filed a civil suit against L.A. Unified, claiming negligence.
A jury found that L.A. Unified was not liable because the girl and the teacher concealed their behavior from school officials. But the Court of Appeal reversed that decision last month, saying that L.A. Superior Court Judge Lawrence Cho erred in using the “dangerous propensity” standard and in allowing evidence of the girl's past sexual history and arguments that she was partly to blame for her abuse. The appellate court ordered a new civil trial.
The Los Angeles Board of Education has authorized an appeal of the ruling on the standard to the high court and attorneys are finalizing documents to do so by Monday, said General Counsel David Holmquist.
But the district will no longer be supported by the archdiocese, whose intervention in the case had drawn criticism from attorneys representing sexual abuse victims.
“They’re arguing for more protection for institutions that allow molestation instead of more protections for children,” said Frank Perez, attorney for the girl in the L.A. Unified case. “It’s very offensive.”
The archdiocese had asked the high court to bar publication of the appellate decision so it could not be cited or used as precedent. It justified its intervention by saying it has been subjected to lawsuits raising such issues and could face them again in the future.
The appellate court decision “appears to set up an unworkable, indefinite standard that is based on no precedent and provides no guidance for claims of negligent supervision in a sex abuse,” according to the Oct. 19 letter signed by Lee W. Potts of the McKool Smith law firm.
But Potts sent a new letter to the high court Friday, withdrawing the request.
"The Archdiocese initially expressed concern regarding publication when it concluded that the now conflicting Court of Appeal decisions could be used to confuse the standards for employers to protect children and young people from abuse," the letter said. "Upon further reflection, the Archdiocese is withdrawing its request.
"The Archdiocese supports justice for victims of abuse and a process that assures that perpetrators and anyone complicit are held accountable for abuse against a child or young person."
John Manly and Vince Finaldi, whose law firm has represented more than 150 victims of clergy sex abuse in California, had criticized Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez for allowing the request to go forward. They said the actions contradicted recent promises by Pope Francis to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect children from misconduct.