Victims Vow to Keep Cases in News: At Meeting, Abuse Survivors, Lawyers, Supporters Discuss Tactics, Look to Lift State Statutes of Limitations. (Church in Crisis)

By Feuerherd, Joe | National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Victims Vow to Keep Cases in News: At Meeting, Abuse Survivors, Lawyers, Supporters Discuss Tactics, Look to Lift State Statutes of Limitations. (Church in Crisis)


Feuerherd, Joe, National Catholic Reporter


Buoyed by a "seismic shift in public opinion" toward their cause, victims of clerical sexual abuse should use their newfound credibility to hit the church where it hurts--the pocketbook and the media. That message was forcefully delivered and enthusiastically received at the Feb. 21-23 meeting of Linkup, a 3,000-member advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse.

Attended by approximately 160 victims and their supporters, the 11th annual gathering was equal parts strategy session (how best to stay on the offensive after a year in which their cause dominated national headlines) and group therapy.

Victims and their families were clearly comforted and occasionally emboldened by an assembly that accepted their stories and intuitively understood the ongoing trauma suffered by victims of clerical sexual abuse. Discussions dealt with such topics as "Healing and Recovery," while "secondary victims"--the spouses, parents, family and friends of abuse survivors--met to discuss their concerns. Prominent speakers--psychotherapist Richard Sipe (NCR, Jan. 10) and author Jason Berry (Lead Us Not Into Temptation)--were heard from. "Celebrate Survival" was the theme of the Saturday night social.

The most applause, however, was reserved for the advocates and attorneys who offered a road map designed to keep the institutional church on the legal, financial and public relations defensive.

Top priority for this year: Change state laws that restrict criminal punishment and limit civil damages because crimes were committed 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

"We have initiatives breaking out everywhere" that would overturn state statute of limitations provisions related to abuse of a minor, said Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, the lead attorney over the past two decades in abuse cases that have resulted in awards and settlements totaling more than $20 million.

Those initiatives are based largely on a 1994 California law that allowed prosecutors to bring charges against alleged abusers well after the abuse was said to have occurred. In addition, late last year California legislators suspended, for one year, the statute of limitations on civil cases. As a result, if they are unable to settle with those claiming abuse at the hands of a California clergy member, dioceses throughout the state could face liabilities in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Legislators in at least eight states, and the list is growing according to Anderson, are considering measures that would allow victims of long-ago abuse to sue for damages (see related stories, Maryland Senate considers bills to aid child sex abuse victims).

"Public opinion is behind us and lawmakers follow public opinion, so the time is now," said Anderson. The strategy: "As we lobby the legislatures and develop public policy we want them to know that we are trying to protect all children and vulnerable adults, not just those abused by clergy," said Anderson. "We don't have to traffic in the clergy issue anymore. If we talk about protecting all children from predators and cultures that protect [the predators], and we just don't make it about the churches ... we get a lot more response." Anderson said he would like to see a "survivors network" developed in every state.

In Kentucky, said attorney Bill McMurry, "a generous ruling" from a state court voided the state's statute of limitations restrictions because the church was found to have covered up abuse cases. As a result, the Louisville archdiocese faces more than 200 lawsuits against priests and church workers who allegedly molested children in their care. McMurry urged Kentucky victims to file lawsuits before the extension of the statute of limitations expires in April.

Meanwhile, Voice of the Faithful activist and Survivors First founder Paul Baier told the abuse victims to shine a light on lawmakers who withhold support for such measures. Victims and their supporters, said Baier, should publicly question why lawmakers who oppose the bills are "soft on pedophiles. …

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