Church Lobbyists Battle to Limit Abuse Suits: More Than a Dozen States Consider Lifting Statutes of Limitations

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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 sell-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 fried 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. …