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Issue Date:  June 2, 2006

Turning focus on state derails legislation

Lifting statutes shouldn't target church alone, opponents say


It’s time the church stopped rolling over to anti-Catholic bigots, rapacious trial lawyers, and state and local governments that exempt themselves from the very laws that threaten to bankrupt dioceses across the country. That’s the give-’em-hell view of Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who led a successful campaign to derail state legislation that would have repealed Colorado’s time limits on sex abuse lawsuits.

The Colorado legislature adjourned May 8 without completing action on a bill that would have repealed the state’s civil statute of limitations related to sex abuse in nonpublic institutions.

The archbishop’s critics say the 61-year-old Capuchin trotted out a series of headline-grabbing distractions designed to portray the church as victim in order to avoid costly court awards and embarrassing document disclosures. Chaput’s supporters, however, welcomed the archbishop’s full-throated defense of a church they say has been unfairly targeted by legislators, victim advocate groups and trial attorneys.

In addition to the efforts of its Colorado Catholic Conference, the church hired an outside lobbying firm to help make its case. Further, in six columns over four months in the Denver archdiocesan newspaper, an essay in the influential journal First Things, and in countless other forums, Chaput offered sympathy to victims (“We sincerely want to assist anyone who was sexually abused as a minor by a member of our archdiocesan clergy in the past”) while unapologetically making his case.

“Across the country, Catholic parishes, dioceses and organizations are now the targets of predatory civil lawsuits and community-crippling settlements,” wrote Chaput. “The people who pay for these damaging lawsuits are always the same. They’re average, innocent Catholic families who had nothing to do with the evil actions of some bad or mentally ill abusers 25, 35 or 45 years ago.”

In an address to Denver deacons he said the bills were “unfair, bigoted and very dangerous pieces of legislation, but because they masquerade as justice for victims, they can fool some of the public.”

Chaput was harsh on trial lawyers. “Most Catholics are ... tired of being pillaged by certain plaintiffs’ attorneys who get the law rewritten for their own profit,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. And he questioned the motives of those backing the legislation. But the argument that ultimately fractured the coalition backing the bills was Chaput’s contention that private institutions such as the church would be held to a higher standard than government institutions, such as public schools.

“For the sake of fairness and for the safety of all children, Coloradans need to insist that any future revision of the civil statute of limitation on sexual abuse needs to equally cover all institutions -- public, religious and private -- with the same penalties, damages and reporting time frames,” wrote Chaput.

Colorado, like most states, invokes the legal principle of “sovereign immunity” which limits the ability to sue a state or its affiliated entities, such as a school district. In Colorado, a victim of sexual abuse in a public school has just 180 days to bring a suit and damages are capped at $150,000. The legislation lifting the statute of limitations on sex abuse claims tied to private institutions included no such limits.

The church got support from advocates and academics who testified that children are far more likely to be abused in public schools than in church settings.

“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t hold our public institutions to as high a standard as our private institutions,” Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft told NCR. Shakeshaft, who testified before the Colorado legislature in favor of lifting the statute of limitations for both public and private institutions, is the author of a June 2004 congressionally-mandated study of sexual abuse in public schools. That study concluded that “more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.”

Lifting restrictions on lawsuits against school districts would “make a great deal of difference” in reducing the incidence of child sexual abuse, said Shakeshaft. The culture in many public school systems, she said, “is more concerned about the needs and reputations of the adults than the safety of kids.”

Terri Miller, a Las Vegas mother of four and chairman of SESAME (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation), agreed. Like bishops who transfer offending priests, she said, principals, teachers unions and school boards frequently fail to report abuse, take the side of the alleged perpetrator over the victim and allow offending teachers to transfer to other school districts or to quietly retire. “All child abuse victims should be afforded the same opportunity for justice,” Miller said.

Thomas Hutton, staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, agreed that laws requiring similar legal consequences for public and private institutions that care for children “make intuitive sense.” He expressed sympathy with the Denver archdiocese’s position. “No one appreciates better than school district people that legislatures act in reaction to headlines,” said Hutton.

Still, said Hutton, the National School Boards Association generally opposes measures that would increase school district liability, noting that abuse victims can also bring suit in federal court. And, he said, data on the extent of abuse in public schools is sketchy at best. Even the Bush administration’s Department of Education, not normally considered a strong ally of public school interest groups, questioned the methodology of Shakeshaft’s study, noted Hutton.

“The author focuses on large measure on a broad set of inappropriate behaviors designated as ‘sexual misconduct,’ rather than on ‘sexual abuse,’ which is the term used in the statute,” noted Deputy Secretary Eugene Hickok in his preface to the report.

“The vast majority of schools in the United States are safe places,” concluded Hickok.

The idea that public institutions are unaccountable is not true, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “The public sector has two safeguards that are lacking in private institutions: some degree of mandated openness, such as Freedom of Information Act requests and open school board meetings, and an accountability -- school board members can be voted out of office.” Said Clohessy: “It seems to me that we should fix the obvious, longstanding, clearly documented and ongoing problem on the private side and if more action needs to be taken down the road, then we should do that.”

The fight is not over. Proponents of the legislation said they will offer a bill next year. Chaput has pledged to oppose any measure that, in his view, treats the church unfairly.

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

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2006

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