States Follow California's Lead on
Priest Abuse Legislation
Bills would extend time limits for
prosecution, suits. Church sees threat to religious freedom.
By Larry B. Stammer - LA Times
February 13, 2003
As the impact of the sex abuse scandal in the Roman
Catholic Church increasingly moves toward the nation's courts, lawmakers
around the country are debating proposals pioneered in California
to extend time limits for criminal prosecutions of abusive priests
and for civil lawsuits against church officials accused of shielding
The proposals could increase the financial liability
of the church, which expects more than 1,000 suits to be filed nationwide
this year alleging priests' sexual abuse of minors.
Organizations that lobby on behalf of sex-abuse victims
and lawyers who are suing the church are actively pushing measures
in at least 15 states.
The receptiveness in those state capitols shows a
"heightened awareness by legislators of the extent of the problem
and the failure of existing laws," said David Clohessy, national
director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, most
prominent of the victims groups.
But top Catholic Church lawyers warn that some of
the proposals threaten freedom of religion.
"Through our wrong actions, we have opened the
door for government to attempt to step more vigorously across the
constitutional boundary between the business of religion and the
business of government and remake the church in dangerous ways,"
Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops, said in a recent speech. "Someone has to say, 'Enough
is enough' "
Church leaders are particularly concerned about a
Kentucky measure that would remove the traditional confidentiality
of the confessional. In most states, a priest generally does not
have to provide evidence of criminal conduct when the information
is gained during a confession. The proposed Kentucky law would eliminate
that protection if a person had confessed that he or she sexually
abused a minor.
"I understand the confessional is a sacred thing,"
said Kentucky state Rep. Susan Westrom, a Democrat who sponsored
the legislation. "But I also understand our priests and ministers
are the front line to God, and if they can't protect a child, what
is their job? It's not just to pray for them. What is right is right
and wrong is wrong."
But some church officials say such legislation would
force priests to choose between observing "Caesar's law"
and their sacred vows.
"It used to be the custom you'd never make a
religious person or institution choose between following their faith
and obeying the law," Chopko said in an interview.
Other Christian denominations share those concerns,
said Father Charles H. Nalls, an Anglican and executive director
of the nondenominational Canon Law Institute in Washington.
"We're hearing consistently from Catholic and
Anglican priests who say they'll just go to jail, pure and simple,"
he said. "They will not violate the confessional seal under
any standard. It's got a lot of Protestant denominations scurrying
for their lawyers finding out what they are going to do. It raises
a whole area of clergy liability."
Four states New Hampshire, Texas, North Carolina
and Rhode Island already have laws that deny the clergy-penitent
privilege. Twenty states, including California, explicitly recognize
the sanctity of the confessional seal and do not require clergy
to report child abuse disclosed under those circumstances, according
to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In other states
the law is not clearly spelled out.
Victims advocates say they realize that the Kentucky
measure is controversial. Changing the time limits for prosecutions
and lawsuits is a more effective way to hold the church accountable,
The time-limit proposals fall into two main categories:
Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky,
Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia
and Washington are considering extending the statute of limitations
for criminal cases against priests accused of abusing minors.
Currently, in most states, prosecutions can take place
only if a victim reports the abuse within a few years of turning
18. The time limit varies from state to state, but five years is
typical. Lobbyists for victims say that limit shields many abusers,
because victims often need years to overcome denial, shame and isolation,
and step forward.
Under a California law that several states are considering
as a model, prosecutors can file charges against an allegedly abusive
priest no matter how old the case so long as the charges are filed
within one year of the victim reporting the incidents to authorities.
The law was passed in 1994 and upheld by the state Supreme Court
The lack of an extended statute of limitations has
been an issue in several states. In New York, a Long Island grand
jury said this week that the Diocese of Rockville Center had protected
at least 58 abusive priests for decades. In some cases, church officials
had tricked victims into believing the diocese was taking action,
the Suffolk County Grand Jury said. But, the panel added, it could
not issue indictments because of the state's five-year statute of
limitations. The grand jury called for changes in the law.
The second major category of proposals would extend
the deadline for alleged abuse victims to sue. Bills to accomplish
that are being considered in Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland,
Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington and Wisconsin.
The California Legislature last year passed a law
suspending the statute of limitations for one year to let victims
of long-ago abuse sue institutions that protected abusers. The law
does not specifically mention the Catholic Church, but bishops statewide
say they expect their dioceses to be the main targets of suits filed
under the law.
Other legislation, being considered in at least 10
states, would add members of the clergy to those already required
to report child abuse suspicions. Currently, most states require
reporting from counselors, teachers and medical professionals. In
some states, Catholic dioceses are supporting passage of mandatory
reporting laws if the bills exempt information obtained in a formal
Church officials and victims' advocates said the momentum
of legislative action could increase the potential cost to the nation's
dioceses. Catholic Church officials have estimated that the extended
statute of limitations for civil suits could cost the Los Angeles
Archdiocese alone millions of dollars, some of which the church
said will be covered by insurance.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles,
said he expects the archdiocese to be named in several hundred new
suits this year. Negotiations have been underway since the end of
December to avoid trial and mediate most of those cases.
Most state legislative sessions have just begun, making
the chances of legislation passing hard to assess, but the church
is on the defensive after a year of headlines about abuse of children,
"Clearly the fight is now in the various state
legislatures around the country," said Beverly Hills attorney
Raymond Boucher, who represents sexual abuse victims.
"As more and more states listen to the victims
... they realize that either we reach out and provide a vehicle
for the victims to find justice or we risk the loss of lives and
opportunity. That's really the choice," he said.