Efforts Against Abuse




Connecticut State House Backs Stricter Penalties For Sex Abusers

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, he said.

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 had expired.

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

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