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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

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Reforming the Statute of Limitations -
The Single Most Effective Legislative Remedy
To Make Sure Kids Are Safer

By Barbara Blaine (312 399 4747) and David Clohessy (314 566 9790)

Like most Americans, Kentucky lawmakers have been shocked and dismayed by the recent clergy sexual abuse scandal. And they are asking the right question: "What can we do to make sure such horrific crimes do not happen again?"

Two very different proposals are being advanced in Frankfort that seek to answer this question. One is what we abuse survivors call a "feel good" bill. It would strengthen the requirement that clergy report suspected child abuse to the proper authorities.

The other proposal is what we abuse survivors call a "do good" bill. It would extend the time in which abuse victims could expose their molester and seek justice the American way: through the courts.

Both approaches rely on a "threat" or penalty that would force adults to work harder to protect children. But the "mandated reporter" approach relies on individual church officials to change their decades-long patterns of behavior - a risky proposition. The "time extension" approach relies on juries - a tried-and-true system of justice that has served our country well for more than 200 years. The "mandated reporter" bill hopes to change organizational "insiders," prodding them to disclose suspected abuse. The "time extension" bill enables outsiders to make church leaders change.

On paper, making clergy "mandated reporters" of suspected abuse seems logical: Teachers, doctors, social workers and other professionals are required to report suspected child abuse. Why shouldn't priests and ministers be obligated to do likewise?

We of course support such legislation, but are convinced it is far less important and effective than extending the statute of limitations. We know of only one minister anywhere who has ever been prosecuted under such laws. And the penalties are often pitifully weak (i.e. six months probation or $1,000 fine in Massachusetts for example).

Is this law better than nothing? Sure. Will it make a big difference? Not really. It's a risky stab at protecting kids. What kids need and deserve is a proven approach that will make them safer.

That reform is the extension of the statute of limitations. The statute is an archaic and dangerous time limit that prevents many childhood sexual abuse victims from seeking justice. It will prevent future abuse, by virtually forcing those who oversee children to work harder to protect those children.

Take two neighboring dioceses, separated only by the Mississippi River: St. Louis Missouri and Belleville Illinois. During the mid 90s, 12 abusive priests were publicly removed from ministry in Belleville. Over the same period, none were publicly removed in St. Louis, even though it has five times as many priests!

Why the stark difference? At that time, the statute of limitations in Illinois was "victim-friendly," enabling those who were wounded to pursue litigation even years afterwards. Conversely, outdated Missouri statutes and restrictive state Supreme Court rulings made St. Louis church officials virtually immune to any possible legal threat.

Extending or eliminating the statute of limitations is the cheapest law enforcement money can buy. To catch more child molesters, we can substantially beef up the budgets of police and prosecutors. Or we can make a simple legislative reform, open the courthouse doors, and let victims expose and remove perpetrators through peaceful, legal means.

Conservatives ought to support such legislation because it's a low cost way to prove they're tough on crime. It requires no government regulations, but rather provides "incentives" for decision-makers to do the right thing. Liberals ought to support such legislation because it gives equal access to our justice system, regardless of when one was victimized.

And it jives with what we know about human nature. The threat of traffic tickets is required to prod motorists to drive more safely. And the threat of litigation is required to prod churches and other organizations to worker harder at protecting kids.

As we abuse victims in the Survivors Network often point out, there is no "statute of limitations" on the suffering caused by sexual molestation - the pain is pervasive and on-going, even despite years of therapy. There is likewise no "statute of limitations" on the molesters - they usually continue victimizing children until they are caught and imprisoned or they die.

We therefore believe that there can be no "statute of limitations" on exposing and removing perpetrators from positions of trust and authority, and no "statute of limitations" on protecting children who are at risk.

Lawmakers should, of course, support both measures. But if it boils down to a choice,
we urge the time-tested approach: letting the wounded who are struggling to expose their molesters at be given their "day in court." Let those who employ and supervise molesters be prodded to become more diligent and proactive at protecting children.

We all know that public attention is fleeting. Now, there is widespread concern about sexual abuse. Next year, despite good intentions to the contrary, that concern may well be gone or greatly diminished. Therefore, the chance to take decisive and effective steps to genuinely make youngster safer is NOW. Kentucky legislators should not squander this chance.

Five or ten years from now, the scandal will have shifted, from abusive clerics to abusive coaches, or teachers, or summer camp staff or counselors. When that happens, Kentucky lawmakers should be able to look themselves in the mirror and realize that in 2003, their wisdom and courage made it possible to stop some molesters, detect and remove other molesters, and thereby allow some innocent kids to escape the life-altering harm that was done to us.

David Clohessy of St. Louis and Barbara Blaine of Chicago are leaders in SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a Chicago-based nationwide support group for clergy abuse victims. It can be found at SNAPnetwork.org


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests