The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: August 1, 2003
Abuse lawyer urges church to fight new laws on old cases
By KEVIN ECKSTROM
A veteran lawyer who has defended the Catholic church in more than 500 sex abuse lawsuits said the church needs to fight more aggressively state laws that make it easier for victims to sue on decades-old abuse cases.
Patrick J. Schiltz, the associate dean at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, said laws that extend or eliminate statutes of limitations on abuse cases are a life-or-death issue.
At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars -- dollars that could otherwise go to construct church buildings and educate students and feed the hungry, Schiltz wrote in the July 7-14 edition of the Jesuit magazine America.
Nearly 1,000 abuse lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic church since the clergy sex scandal erupted 18 months ago. Some estimates say the church has paid out $1 billion in settlements in the past 20 years, including more than $50 million in the last nine months.
Most of the lawsuits were filed by adults who claimed they were abused as children. Victims lawyers argued that the legal time frames on many of the cases should be waived because it often takes years for victims to summon the courage to go public with the alleged abuse.
Last year, California and Connecticut passed laws that allowed victims to file civil suits on old cases for which the statute of limitations had expired. The California law gives victims through the end of 2003 to file their claims.
Schiltz said bishops should be working against such laws with other denominations and secular organizations like school districts and the Boy Scouts, who have as much at stake as we do.
Schiltzs article comes one week after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a separate California law that retroactively eliminated the criminal statute of limitations on abuse cases. On June 28, two former priests suspected of abuse were released from a Los Angeles jail after the ruling. As many as nine more accused priests in the Los Angeles archdiocese could be affected, according to The Associated Press.
Schiltz said large settlements are inevitable after 18 months of negative media coverage, which has poisoned judges and jurors against the church.
The leader of a national victims group, however, faulted Schiltz for airing tired Chicken Little arguments. David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it is the bishops surprisingly enduring patterns of denial and stonewalling that landed the church in legal trouble.
Its disingenuous for Schiltz to deplore the length of time litigation can drag on, while failing to acknowledge that church lawyers are nearly always the cause of such delays, Clohessy said.
Schiltz, however, did not give the bishops a free pass. By far the most important thing that the church must do is restore trust, he wrote. Speaking as an average Joe in the pew, I must confess that the church will not restore my trust until it holds negligent bishops accountable for the incalculable damage they have inflicted on the church.
He also pushed the bishops to improve relations with victims. Victims choose to sue the church not because they are angry at being abused, but because they are angry at the way their complaint was handled by the church, he said.
Rather than try to fight the suits in all 195 dioceses, Schiltz called for the appointment of a sexual abuse czar who would oversee a tribunal that would offer compensation to victims if they agree not to sue in court.
Church lawyers around the country are reinventing the wheel every day, which both costs the church a lot of money and results in wildly inconsistent representation, he said.
National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003
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