Monday, October 22, 2007
Why should public school principals who tolerate sexual abuse on their campuses be treated differently from church officials who do nothing about child-molesting priests?
why does the law say the Roman Catholic Church must pay millions of dollars in claims over abuse that happened long ago, while school districts get off without paying a cent?
I fear that public agencies don't have to answer for the actions of their employees. Are we being practicing fairness, justice, or being Homophobic ignorants?
By Patty Fisher
I've been wrestling with these questions since the Mercury News reported this month that a woman who was molested years ago by her middle-school teacher had to drop her lawsuit against the Palo Alto Unified School District over a technicality: She didn't file a claim with the district - a warning that a lawsuit is coming - within six months of the wrong.
I've followed the case closely because the teacher, Bill Giordano, taught my daughters. Mr. G. was popular with the kids. The last time I saw him, we chaperoned a high school dance together. I often think how easily it could have been my family, my daughter, dealing with this unending nightmare.
Parent and taxpayer
Should the school district be held responsible for the pain this woman went through? As a taxpayer, I hate to see education dollars spent on lawyers and damage awards when there isn't enough money to educate our kids.
Yet as a parent, I wish she'd had her day in court. I fear that if public agencies don't have to answer for the actions of their employees, they won't be as vigilant as they should be.
"If only the principal had picked up the phone and called her parents, if he'd told them about the rumors," said the woman's lawyer, Chuck Smith. "As it is, her teenage years were snatched away by this guy."
Giordano went to prison after pleading no contest to molestation charges. The woman filed a civil suit over the abuse, and he agreed to pay her $260,000. She sued the school district, too, but it's off the hook because, according to state law, victims have just six months to file claims with public agencies. This woman didn't come forward until 2005, when Giordano tried to contact her.
Her lawyer would like to see the law changed so abuse victims can file claims as adults. Not surprisingly, the lawyer for the school district sees the situation differently.
"There's a good reason for the six-month rule," said Mark Davis. "You want to give public entities notice right away so they can investigate and prevent others from being victimized."
Besides, he said, years later it's hard to gather evidence. Children's memories fade. Employees move or retire. Whether districts settle or go to trial, such cases are expensive.
I understand the six-month rule in most cases, but sexual abuse is different.
'It takes years'
"Kids don't come forward because they can't," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It takes years for abuse victims to realize the damage that is done. It's after the fourth divorce and the fifth DUI and the sixth bar fight that we are forced into therapy and finally confront the past."
That's why the Legislature has extended the statute of limitations in child-molestation cases. And that's why the Legislature should make an exception in the six-month rule in abuse cases, too.
I'd like to think that school districts are more vigilant today than they were before the child-molesting priest scandals. And that kids today know they're supposed to report any adult who touches them inappropriately.
But we're kidding ourselves if we think times have changed that much. No matter how many times we warn them, girls will always have crushes on teachers. And predators will always be able to convince gullible kids that "love" isn't wrong.