Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is shown late last year at the California… (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press )
Reporting from San Francisco -- The California Supreme Court appeared reluctant Thursday to give adult victims of child molestation the right to sue decades later those who knew of the abuse and failed to stop it.
During oral argument, several members of the state high court expressed skepticism toward a lower court's finding that gave adult victims flexible legal deadlines for bringing such third-party suits.
The court is considering a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church by six brothers who were in their 40s when they said they discovered that they were suffering the effects of abuse by a priest decades earlier. They argued that the law gives victims three years to sue after realizing the abuse caused their psychological troubles.
But Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she was concerned that the victims were relying on "vague language" in a state law to get around legal deadlines.
"We don't read vague language to revive lapsed claims," Cantil-Sakauye said.
Margaret M. Grignon, an attorney for the church, argued that alleged victims may not bring such suits after the age of 26. Two lower courts have limited such suits, but a third ruled in the case of the brothers that the clock begins ticking toward the legal deadline only after the victim realizes the abuse triggered his or her problems.
Irwin M. Zalkin, an attorney for the brothers, said they did not understand until 2006 that molestations that occurred during the early 1970s were responsible for their mental health troubles.
The men said they were molested by the priest when he worked at a parish in Hayward, part of the Diocese of Oakland. The priest was never charged, but the diocese settled several lawsuits involving him. Attorneys for the brothers said the priest admitted in depositions that he molested them.
"These are people whose lives suffered," Zalkin said. "They have struggled in ways you can't imagine."
The court appeared divided in another child molestation case, a lawsuit against the William S. Hart Union High School District for hiring a high school counselor with a history of child molestation.
That suit charged that the district knew or should have known that Roselyn Hubbell, the counselor, had sexually molested minors when it hired her to work at Golden Valley High School in Santa Clarita.
The suit contends that Hubbell molested a 15-year-old boy repeatedly in 2007, driving him home from school and spending many hours with him on and off campus. Hubbell eventually was arrested at a motel with another boy and charged with a misdemeanor.
Justice Carol A. Corrigan said schools must "make sure students are properly educated and that they are safe."
A district's responsibility is "to make sure the teachers are not molesting the kids," she said.
Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar questioned how the court could limit the ruling to the situation in the case so it wouldn't be applied to all "intimate, care-taking relationships." Cantil-Sakauye said the lawyers for the boy were asking the court to take "a huge step" in imposing liability on school administrators.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, however, observed that the boy would still face several hurdles if the court permitted his suit to proceed. "You still have to prove actual negligence by supervising administrators," Kennard told a lawyer for the student.
Rulings in both cases are expected in 90 days.