Survivors Network of those
Abused by Priests
Opinions & Editorials
essays from around the nation
February 13, 2006
Extend Window of Justice for Sex Abuse
The legislature should extend the statute of limitations
for victims to sue over abuse by priests and others whose assaults took
place years ago.
There is no question that public and private institutions should be subject
to the same standard when it comes to civil court procedures and penalties
involving the victims of child sexual abuse. That said, the Denver Catholic
archdiocese is overreacting to legislation proposing to lift the statute
of limitations for victims seeking damages for the pain they suffered
years - even decades - earlier at the hands of an adult.
Whether it was a pedophile priest, a school teacher or a Boy Scout official,
responsible adults and their institutions should not be able to avoid
accountability for their acts.
The church is arguing that Colorado law makes it tougher to sue public
schools under routine governmental immunity laws and therefore it should
be just as tough to sue the church for its pedophile priests. Church officials
say sexual misconduct in public schools is a more serious problem than
it is in the Roman Catholic Church. To prove its point, the church has
come up with 85 cases of public school teachers in Colorado dating back
to 1997 who had their licenses revoked or denied due to alleged sexual
misconduct. Apparently the church considers that far more serious than
Colorado priests who allegedly repeatedly molested altar boys and other
The numbers game is a blatant effort by the church to divert attention
from its responsibility to compensate priests' victims. The fact is, the
church is under pressure because officials knew that priests were abusing
children in their own flock yet covered it up, quietly moving the priests
from parish to parish. In Colorado, at least two priests have been accused
in court by two dozen young men of abusing them as boys. The number of
victims might be even bigger, but their day in court has long ago passed,
thanks to the statute of limitations that some lawmakers want to relax
or eliminate for future cases.
The statute of limitations for suing a church or other private institution
is two years from the date of a victim's discovery of injury. The same
is true for bringing a suit against a school or other public entity under
governmental immunity laws. The Denver archdiocese, in a letter read in
each parish, questioned why the victim of a priest can "wait a lifetime"
before suing the church, while "the victim of exactly the same and
even more frequent abuse" in a public school loses their claim after
180 days. In fact, the window is two years, said Tom Roberts, a lawyer
representing clients suing the church.
Governmental immunity doesn't shield public employees from "willful
and wanton" conduct, he said. A school also could be sued under the
Federal Civil Rights Act.
The church has every right to be wary of the potential embarrassment
and financial pain that could result if more lawsuits are filed because
of the legislation. More important, though, is to do right by any victims
and set the church on a positive course in dealing with any future claims.
Up for debate today, Senate Bill 143 would open a window for lawsuits
by those who have lost their day in court because the statute of limitations
ran out. A one-year window in California led to about 800 lawsuits. Senate
President Joan Fitz-Gerald said she has proposed two years for Colorado,
aware that it can take decades for a victim to come to terms with what
was done to them.
In Ohio, lawmakers heard dramatic testimony while weighing a one-year
window. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit, who was sexually
abused by a priest when he was a boy and broke his silence after 60 years,
recently urged the legislature to pass the bill, knowing full well it
would cause the church pain. "It might seem easier to keep the evils
hidden," Gumbleton said. "But I am convinced that a settlement
of every case by our court system is the only way to protect children
and heal the brokenness within the church."
Providing a temporary window for lawsuits is critical to giving sexual
assault victims the opportunity to have their day in court. As Gumbleton
said, "I do believe that the abusers need to be exposed."