Cover story -- Abuse crisis
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Issue Date:  March 31, 2006

Church lobbyists battle to limit abuse suits

More than a dozen states consider lifting statutes of limitations


In a series of emotional hearings taking place in state capitols across the country, clergy sex abuse victims and church lobbyists both say they want justice, though there’s no consensus on what that might look like or how to get there.

Proposals in more than a dozen states would eliminate or temporarily suspend the statute of limitations on child abuse. Laws vary by jurisdiction, but typically forbid civil suits against alleged abusers and those who covered-up their crimes several years after the victim reaches age 18. Statute of limitations restrictions on criminal prosecutions tend to be more open-ended, but are also the subject of scrutiny in legislatures across the country.

Legislative fights are hottest in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts and Ohio. Other states where legislation has been introduced include Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin.

On one side are abuse victims and their advocates, who argue that restrictions on civil suits involving child abuse reward molesters and the abettors who covered up their crimes. “The incentive is backwards,” said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “With this reform every agency dealing with kids will be forced to work harder to prevent abuse and respond pastorally when abuse happens; without it, it’s in their self-interest to stonewall, lie, hide and intimidate,” said Clohessy. “In every realm of human behavior the threat of negative consequences deters recklessness.”

Further, say survivor advocates, child molesters know their victims are unlikely to report the abuse quickly. “For many of the victims, it takes tens of years to acknowledge to themselves the toll it has exacted on their life,” said Steven Krueger, spokesman for the Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws in Massachusetts. “It is one of the only crimes where the victim internalizes the guilt and the shame.”

The financial awards that might flow to abuse victims in jurisdictions that lift their statute of limitations restrictions, said Clohessy and other victim advocates, is less significant than the disclosure dioceses will be forced to make when sued and the additional protection vulnerable children will have as a result of the lawsuits.

Money, however, is not least among the church’s concerns. Church officials point to the approximately 800 lawsuits filed against California clergy and dioceses in that state following enactment of a 2003 law under which alleged victims who fell outside the statute of limitations were given a one-year “window” to bring suit. In late February, a New York court, citing the state’s statute of limitations, dismissed a complaint brought by 42 plaintiffs seeking more than $300 million in damages from the Brooklyn diocese.

“Who knows what the cost might be?” asked Robert O’Hara, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

In Colorado, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and the state Catholic Conference are fighting several measures that would suspend or repeal the state’s civil statute of limitations on child abusers.

“Unless Catholics wake up right now and push back on behalf of their church, their parishes and the religious future of their children, the pillaging [of church resources] will continue,” Chaput said in an e-mail response to questions posed by Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic weekly. Bishops, said Chaput, “have a duty to protect the heritage and patrimony of the Catholic community that laypeople have worked so hard though the decades to build up.”

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, a December 2005 statement from the archdiocese said that the church will “have great difficulty” funding the social service programs it currently supports should changes be enacted.

But in addition to money, diocesan officials contend that repealing civil statutes of limitations unfairly targets the church.

Suits brought against the church concerning abuse that occurred decades ago, would … be very difficult to defend because over time evidence gets lost,” O’Hara told NCR. “Witnesses go away [and] in some cases defendants may have passed away or be gone. It results in something that is very unfair and unworkable.”

“By eliminating time limits or vastly extending them, these bills unfairly require a religious organization or other private entity to try to defend a civil lawsuit involving allegations that could be 30 to 40 years old,” Jane Belford, chancellor of the Washington archdiocese, told a Maryland House committee March 9. “Memories fade over time, and witnesses and accused individuals may have died, disappeared or become infirm.”

Prosecutors and victims advocates reject the argument. “We believe, as in homicide cases where there is no statute of limitations, that these crimes are of such a serious nature and have such a longstanding effect, that we consider it ‘soul murder,’ ” said Charles Gallagher, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. A Philadelphia grand jury reported in late September that 63 Philadelphia priests were known by diocesan officials to have abused children but escaped prosecution because of the statute of limitations. The grand jury recommended the changes now being pushed by the district attorney’s office, said Gallagher.

“These allegations should be reviewed,” continued Gallagher, “and if the evidence is not there” the alleged molester “should not be charged or they will prevail in lawsuits.”

In Massachusetts, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley told a state house panel March 14 that “no victim should be prohibited from having his or her day in court merely because the clock ran out.”

In Colorado, meanwhile, Chaput has argued forcefully that the church, and other private institutions, should be on a level playing field with government institutions, such as public schools. In a letter to Denver Catholics read at Masses in early February, Chaput said that the bills under consideration in the state General Assembly ignore “the serious problem of sexual abuse in public schools and other public institutions, and focus instead on religious and private organizations. In other words, some Colorado legislators seem determined to be harsh when it comes to Catholic and other private institutions, and much softer when it comes to their own public institutions, including public schools.”

The Denver archdiocese, responded SNAP’s Clohessy, is a “Johnny-come-lately” to the issue of sex abuse in schools. He termed the argument “a ruse, a diversion designed to derail the effort.”

In testimony before a Colorado assembly committee a Colorado church representative refused to say that the state Catholic Conference would endorse legislation that treated public and private institutions comparably. Colorado state Catholic Conference officials did not respond to NCR inquiries.

Chaput, however, has some manner of support from an unlikely quarter. Plaintiff attorney Carmen Durso helped draft legislation in Massachusetts that would completely repeal the civil statute of limitations in that state and not offer a “window” for lawsuits of the kind being discussed in Colorado and Pennsylvania.

“It is hard to justify legislation that is aimed at one particular group,” which is how the courts could view bills that provide a “window” in which to sue, said Durso. But more important, he continued, “doing it on a one-time basis for a limited time is counterproductive” because victims will continue to come forward after the window closes. He cited the approximately 175 victims who came forward in Massachusetts after the Boston archdiocese reached an $85 million “global settlement” with more than 500 victims in 2003. “In two or three years,” he said, “we’ll have another 100.”

Further, said Durso, the issue is “broader than just clergy abuse,” which amounts to “a very small proportion of the overall number of sex abuse claims,” most of which occur in family settings.

Back in Pennsylvania, state representative Douglas Reichley (R-Lehigh and Bucks Counties) hopes his legislation to create a one-year “window” on civil claims will pressure the church to deal with victims. “I hope the church will look within its own resources and to its responsibilities in this situation and offer up some degree of compensation to the victims, understanding that no amount of money can make one whole.” The alternative, he said, “is having a public legislative hearing where we bring the cardinal or members of the church hierarchy in to explain in televised hearings why the church should block bringing some degree of relief.”

Said Reichly, “That would not be a particularly attractive option.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006

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