Bills On Child Sex Abuse Languish Despite
Public Anger Over Crisis in Catholic Church
By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2003
Legislation aimed at responding to the Roman Catholic sex abuse
crisis has failed to win quick passage in many statehouses, despite
public anger over how the church handled offenders in the priesthood.
Bills in Kentucky, Iowa, Virginia and Maryland that
would have made it easier to sue the church or tightened requirements
for clergy to report molestation have been shelved.
Youth groups, schools, Protestant denominations and
insurance companies that would be affected by the proposals are
lobbying side-by-side with Catholics to amend or block some of the
And lawmakers in several states, even ones particularly
hard hit by the molestation crisis, are reviewing the proposals
cautiously despite victims' emotional appeals for swift approval.
Victor Senior, head of the Catholic Conference of
Kentucky, felt his group got a fair hearing when it went before
state legislators -- even though 200 sex abuse lawsuits have been
filed against the Louisville Archdiocese.
"They looked at it from the legal aspect,"
The same is true in states where the church supported
the legislation, such as Iowa. There is concern among lawmakers
about crossing the line between church and state, and bishops' new,
hard line against abusers may have lessened the urgency for such
Advocates still have a chance to win significant legislative
changes in some places: Bills have been drafted in at least 12 states
that would, among other things, extend the statute of limitations
for abuse-related lawsuits. That could cost dioceses millions of
But the failures have been notable considering the
church's battered reputation after more than a year of scandal.
In Iowa, a bill that would have required clergy to
report abuse claims to authorities -- but protected the confidentiality
of the confessional -- died even though the state Catholic conference
The measure was not groundbreaking: 15 states already
have such laws. But some Iowa legislators feared the proposal would
violate the separation of religion and government.
In Virginia, a similar bill was proposed and had the
support of one of the state's Catholic bishops, as well as clergy
from other denominations. It ran into opposition from lawmakers
who believed the measure was an overreaction to the crisis.
A Kentucky bill would have forced clergy to report
abuse even if the information was disclosed in the confessional.
The Kentucky Council of Churches, which includes Protestant denominations,
joined the Catholic church to oppose the idea, saying it would be
a breach of religious freedom. That measure was effectively shelved,
as was another that would have extended the statute of limitations
on civil lawsuits.
"Trying to get the bill in proper form to get
through the House and Senate really slowed the bill down,"
said Sue Archibald of the victim advocacy group The Linkup, based
in Louisville. "We're also dealing with a tough budget in Kentucky
and that has been a focus."
Activists had reason to be hopeful the bills they
supported would pass this legislative session.
As the crisis developed last year, legislatures in
Colorado, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where the
scandal erupted, quickly toughened laws on child sex abuse in response
to dioceses' wrongdoing.
California passed legislation that victims hoped would
be a model in other states: Starting Jan. 1, the statute of limitations
for civil lawsuits in sex abuse cases was lifted for one year.
Two New York grand juries that investigated how their
local dioceses handled abusive priests also called for changes in
state laws that would give authorities more time to prosecute offenders.
"The problem is now burned onto the public consciousness,"
said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has represented hundreds
of victims and is lobbying for changes in state laws. "Lawmakers
now are aware of how serious this problem is. Everybody, Catholic
and non-Catholic, agrees that we have done a poor job of protecting
But obstacles remain, as a bill in Washington state
State Rep. Al O'Brien, a former police officer, was
moved by victims' stories to propose abolishing the statute of limitations
for abuse lawsuits.
As soon as he introduced the bill, he said, lobbyists
from the church, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and state agencies began
urging him and other lawmakers to amend the measure, saying it would
bankrupt institutions that serve children. As a result, the legislation
was scaled back to apply mainly to abuse cases in the future, he
"Initially, there was a lot of excitement over
this, but now it's gotten buried in minutiae," O'Brien said.
"If we ever get it out to the floor, people will say, `Is that
©2003 Associated Press