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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

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Editorial: A better clergy-abuse bill

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September 21, 2003


The testimony in Madison last week was poignant and devastating - and should have sent shivers of shame through anyone who was paying attention. Speakers detailed the abuse they had suffered as children at the hands of clergy, people they had been taught by their families and their culture to trust implicitly.

"It will never be over for me," said Brenda Varga, 41, of Plover, who told legislators of being molested by a priest when she was 8 or 9 years old. "I was 35 before I came to grips with it."

Testifying on proposed clergy sexual abuse legislation, Varga and others bore witness to the devastating crimes that had been inflicted on them as children and gave the best reasons why this bill, good in many respects, is insufficient to its task.

Most important, the bill does little for victims of past abuse. Victims' groups support a one-year window that would allow victims to file civil suits even in cases in which the statute of limitations has expired. Given the pain they suffered and the neglect to which many of them were subjected by church and other officials, that seems a reasonable thing to ask.

Those who argue against including such a window say it most likely would be ruled unconstitutional, and it is true that a California law involving criminal prosecution of cases beyond the statute of limitations was struck down this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the court did not address the civil issue, and constitutional experts disagree on what would happen in the case of civil lawsuits.

Victims' groups want the window because they feel church authorities of any denomination will avoid dealing meaningfully with victims if there is no legal threat hanging over their heads. The widespread scandal in the Roman Catholic Church seems to indicate the victims are right.

Because of state court decisions going back to 1995, no such real threat exists in Wisconsin, which is why creating such a window is especially important here.

It's true that some important steps have been taken by church officials, including in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, over the past year. Among such local steps is an improved pastoral mediation process that does seem to be helping a few victims of past abuse.

But not enough. To many victims, the church is not an innocent bystander; it was very much a party to the crime. So victims are reluctant to participate in any mediation process they perceive as being controlled or dominated by church officials. They want the church to submit to an independent mediation process. That, too, seems reasonable.

Numbers released last week by the Milwaukee Archdiocese indicate that there have been hundreds of local victims over the years. Currently, church officials tell us, 12 victims of past abuse are going through the church's mediation process. That hardly seems like a ringing endorsement.

Rep. David Cullen (D-Milwaukee) says he intends to have an amendment drafted that would include a one-year window in the clergy sexual abuse bill. We hope that other legislators - in particular, Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin), a key player with a genuine sympathy for victims, and Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee), who has championed victims in the past and is one of the sponsors of the bill - join that effort.

When the Legislature approved the school choice program, no one knew whether it would be upheld by the courts. But legislators went ahead anyway, figuring the courts could work it out. They should take the same attitude here.

At the very least, it would put them on the side of the victims - and perhaps the angels.




Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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