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Time on side of abuse victims
New law suspends limit on civil suits

By Christi Parsons - Tribune staff reporter
November 2, 2003

By dramatically changing the way Illinois law looks at child sexual abuse and the nature of the harm it causes, a new statute has opened the door for many more civil suits against alleged abusers.

The new law puts Illinois among the most lenient in how much time can pass before such a suit is filed, by essentially suspending the age limit for some accusers. The law now acknowledges the difference between unlocking a repressed memory of abuse and actually recognizing that it was harmful, giving accusers time for both realizations to happen before shutting the door to litigation.

It may seem a subtle nuance, but the new law's language radically shifts the landscape for abuse victims, who experts say may take decades to realize the consequences of what happened to them.

The change means everything for adults who were sexually abused as children, say victims and their advocates. Whereas before the new law almost no one older than 28 had any legal recourse, now anyone of any age could conceivably bring a lawsuit.

"It became crystal clear to me only last year that I was harmed by this," said Ken Kaczmarz, 34, who is suing the priest who he says abused him when he was 11 and 12 as well as other boys at a Southwest Side church. "It took me that long to realize that my absolute distrust for authority, the anger that I have--these things are without a doubt related to the abuse I suffered at his hands. I'm only ready now to confront it."

Before the passage of the law, Kaczmarz was well past the civil statute of limitations to file a suit. Now, however, his lawyer can argue in court that the clock didn't start ticking for him until last year.

Proponents of the law are worried challenges in two courtrooms in Springfield and Chicago may render it moot. The Springfield Diocese has challenged the civil part of the law in a case brought by an adult alleging sexual abuse while he was a child, and a Chicago parochial school is seeking similar action in a Cook County case, according to the law's supporters.

Many experts on child sex abuse say suffering injury at a young age somehow creates a treacherous chasm between the knowledge of abuse and understanding of its consequences.

Those who traverse that chasm still face a difficult fight in the courts despite the new law. Though it gives them greater standing to file suit, the law does not make it easier to prove the abuse occurred or an accused's guilt. By inviting so many lawsuits based on discoveries late in life, in fact, the law may even open a whole new line of defense for the accused.

Still, the legal change is being heralded by countless survivors of abuse. Previously, people who reported years-old abuse to police or prosecutors found the law no longer allowed authorities to file criminal charges or civil suits.

States consider changes

Many states have begun to consider changing their laws to address the problem, with half a dozen legislatures examining measures to extend the statutes of limitations for lawsuits. California is in the midst of a one-year window during which anyone can bring a claim for damages regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred.

And a year ago, Connecticut increased the age for filing suit to 48, .

Inspired by highly publicized clergy sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, lawmakers in Illinois last spring passed the law clarifying and extending the limitations on both criminal prosecution and civil claims.

Previously, prosecutors could pursue criminal charges only if an accuser was younger than 28. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the measure into law in July, allowing prosecutors to file child sex abuse charges in future cases up to 20 years after an accuser turns 18.

A second change gives all accusers more time to file civil suits as well. Now they have 10 years after turning 18, instead of just two years.

But a third significant change effectively suspends the age limit for many accusers: It gives them five years after they have not just recognized they had been abused but also after they have realized the harm it caused.

Like policymakers all over the country, Illinois officials have only recently come to this viewpoint. The prevailing attitude was reflected in a 2000 opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court, ruling against a 32-year-old Kane County woman suing the priest who she alleged sexually abused her as a minor.

In that case, the justices said they thought she'd waited too long to bring her suit because she had always been aware of what had happened to her.

"The plaintiff does not contend that she repressed memories of the abuse committed by [the priest]," Justice Benjamin Miller wrote, "or that she was not aware that his misconduct was harmful. Rather, the plaintiff asserts that she did not discover until years later the full extent of the injuries she allegedly sustained as a result of the childhood occurrences."

In those circumstances, justices said, the clock should start at the time an accuser turns 18.

But among the vast and increasingly public network of sexual abuse survivors, that notion runs counter to what they believe about the effects of such abuse--and about the way victims arrive at a point where they can confront their attackers.

Knowing that you were abused and realizing you were seriously harmed by it are two different things, many advocates and experts say.

"It's almost medieval, the ignorance about the dynamic of child abuse," said Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who is filing such civil suits in Illinois and other states. "There's a cultural denial that the most trusted people among us wouldn't do such horrible things, and that refusal to believe there's a problem affects the victims too. Courts and lawmakers don't understand why it is that people need more time before they can face it."

Realization years later

Psychologically, that often stems from the fact that it takes abuse survivors years to realize they were crime victims, some experts say.

"Your age colors your sense of what's appropriate," said Susan Phipps-Yonas, a psychologist and expert witness who frequently testifies in sex abuse court proceedings around the country. "You may for a long time have such distorted cognitions about what happened and, to whatever extent the individual feels it was her fault or his fault, that complicated so much the ability to understand that this was abuse."

Survivors have to first realize they were victims of abuse before they can come to the knowledge that the abuse harmed them, Phipps-Yonas said.

In fact, the average age of the people who join support groups for victims of child sex abuse is high, with few members attending before age 30, Chicago-area support group members say.

Illinois law now more clearly respects this reasoning. It also stipulates that none of the limitation periods run while an accuser is subject to threats, intimidation, manipulation or fraud.

As a result of this change, many who were previously ineligible to pursue civil suits are now able to file them.

Kaczmarz is among those plaintiffs. He said he remembered in 1992 that he had been abused by a priest when he was a child, just as stories of clergy abuse began appearing in the media.

"I started thinking about my relationship with him, and all of these episodes in his office began coming back to me," Kaczmarz said.

Desire to protect others

Before the passage of the new law, Kaczmarz would have had no recourse, and the suit, which he filed in February, may well have been thrown out of court. Now, though, because he contends he discovered the harm within the last five years, he has standing to sue the priest and the religious order in court. At the very least, Kaczmarz hopes, the public nature of the suit will help prevent the priest from being put in positions of trust around children again.

Dozens of other potential plaintiffs are in the same position now, said Joe Klest, a Chicago-area attorney who handles such cases and who also helped craft the law. While the change only allows criminal charges in future cases of abuse, victims of all ages who have discovered their injuries in the last five years can come forward in civil court.

"This changes everything for a lot of people," Klest said. "Finally, there is something they can do about what happened to them."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests