Connecticut State House Backs Stricter Penalties For
By LISA CHEDEKEL
Hartford Courant Staff Writer
May 3, 2002
As one of the central figures in the child-sex scandal engulfing
the Roman Catholic Church was arrested, the state House of Representatives
approved legislation early today that would greatly extend the statute
of limitations on child molestation and increase penalties for abusers.
The vote came after an unusual and tense debate over a provision
of the bill that would require clergy to break confidentiality,
even in confessionals, in cases in which they had reason to believe
a child was at risk of imminent injury. After a discussion that
had lawmakers weighing the tenets of the Catholic church against
the moral obligations of clergy, the bill was approved 144-2.
"In light of all we've learned in recent months about people
we should have respect for ... this chamber would be a laughingstock
in this country" if the bill died because of an effort to exempt
clergy from an obligation to report crimes against children, said
Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, a sponsor of the bill.
The chief opponent of the disclosure provision, Rep. T.R. Rowe,
R-Trumbull, said requiring clergy to disclose confidential communications
would violate "the seal of the confessional that has been with
us for generations and centuries." Catholic priests who violate
an oath of confidentiality would be excommunicated from the church,
With few lawmakers supporting his position, Rowe dropped his fight.
He and Rep. Thomas F. Conway, D-Waterbury, cast the only "no"
votes against the bill, which is expected to win final approval
next week in the state Senate.
The measure calls for a change in state law that would allow child
molestation victims to seek criminal prosecution of their abusers
for 30 years after they turn 18, or up to age 48, if the crime has
not been reported previously to police. The statute of limitations
would be waived for the most serious cases of molestation - first-degree
sexual assault, which involves the use or threat of force.
Under existing law, the statute of limitations expires after a
victim turns 20. Cases that are reported to police must be prosecuted
within five years, under both the old and new laws.
The bill would not extend the statute of limitations retroactively,
which would have allowed people now older than 20 to file criminal
complaints against their abusers. Proponents of retroactivity dropped
that provision in a compromise that means the extended criminal
statute would apply only to future cases.
In the case of civil claims, however, the legislation would retroactively
extend the period of time that victims could file lawsuits against
abusers up until the victim turns 48, rather than the age limit
of 35 now allowed.
Although lawmakers made few direct references to the recent spate
of cases concerning clergy, Lawlor said the measure had gained momentum
from "a variety of tragic incidents."
"I think we've not done a good job [protecting children] -
not the government, not the community," Lawlor said. "This
will help us to do a better job."
He said the decision to drop the retroactivity provision should
silence "concerns about persons who might be falsely accused
of these crimes" years after they occurred and find themselves
unable to counter the charges.
Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, who had led the opposition
to retroactivity, said the enhanced penalties, which he helped to
craft, "will make a statement that Connecticut has no tolerance
for sexual assault against minors."
"This is an important bill," he said, "and unfortunately
a timely one."
The House took up the bill on the same day that the Rev. Paul Shanley,
formerly assigned to the Archdiocese of Boston, was arrested in
San Diego on charges that he repeatedly raped a young boy during
the 1980s. The House action also follows reports that New York Cardinal
Edward M. Egan, while serving as bishop of the Bridgeport diocese,
failed to alert police or child protection authorities to allegations
of abuse by priests.
Nationally, the statute of limitations has dogged prosecutors in
dozens of sex-abuse cases brought against priests and others, because
many alleged victims don't come forward for years. About a year
ago, the Bridgeport diocese settled lawsuits filed in 1993 by 26
victims against five priests. But because those allegations dated
to the 1970s and '80s, the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution
The bill would create new categories of sexual assault crimes against
minors, carrying stiffer penalties than existing law provides. A
new charge of first-degree aggravated sexual assault of a minor
would be classified as a Class A felony, subjecting those convicted
to a mandatory 20-year sentence.
Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, originally proposed the bill several
years ago at the urging of a constituent who had been molested.
Besides the enhanced criminal penalties, the measure would bar
civil courts from entering judgments or approving settlements that
would keep information about alleged child molestation secret. Many
of the civil cases involving priests in the Bridgeport diocese were
sealed at the diocese's request.
The new law also would strengthen a requirement that doctors, teachers
and others who are in contact with children report alleged abuse
to the state Department of Children and Families. Those "mandated
reporters" would be required to inform the agency of any suspected
abuse by anyone who cares for a child, not just a parent or guardian.
Although Lawlor said it was always the intent of the law that priests
be required to report child abuse, that provision will now be clarified.
The new legislation resolves a potential conflict between that mandatory
reporting requirement and another provision in law that assured
confidentiality between priests and those they were counseling.
Courant Staff Writer Alaine Griffin contributed to this story.
Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant