Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill Thursday that dramatically relaxes the statute of limitations in molestation cases.
The bill, drafted in response to the Roman Catholic Church sex scandal, received unanimous support in the Assembly and Senate and was called "the most progressive legislation of its kind in the U.S." by one nationally prominent victims' rights advocate.
Catholic officials and plaintiffs attorneys expect the new law to trigger a flood of lawsuits in 2003 from decades-old sexual abuse cases, including the refiling of suits thrown out earlier because of statute of limitations problems.
The new law suspends the statute of limitations in molestation cases for one year, beginning in January, if an institution or company allowed a known molester to continue to work and that person went on to abuse another child.
"It's a terrific bill," said David Clohessy, national director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
"This is truly big," said John Manly, a Costa Mesa attorney who has filed several sexual abuse suits against the church. "It allows victims to have a modicum of opportunity for justice and closure."
Existing law allowed victims of childhood sexual abuse to pursue legal action until their 26th birthday or for three years after they realized their emotional or physical problems were caused by abuse.
Edward E. Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, a Sacramento-based lobbying group for the state's 12 dioceses, said his organization took no position on the bill.