Efforts Against Abuse




Archbishop Rigali Backs Missouri Review of Statute of Limitations Laws

By Patricia Rice, And Kevin McDermott - St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 10, 2002

Advocates for people who have been sexually abused by priests on Thursday asked Roman Catholic bishops in St. Louis, across the nation and in Canada to lobby for legislation that would give prosecutors more time to file charges in child sex abuse cases.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Senate passed a measure Thursday that would do just that.

St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali met Thursday morning with David Clohessy and Steve Pona, both from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, at the Catholic Center on Lindell Boulevard and accepted their list of requests.

They asked that Rigali support legislation that would require priests to notify civil authorities when abuse occurs, that he open all church personnel files to prosecutors when requested, relinquish gag orders on existing legal settlements between abuse victims and the church and that the church not use legal tactics to trap survivors "in secrecy, silence and shame."

After reviewing the document, Rigali released a statement in which he said he thought the statutes of limitation should be reviewed before the next legislative session in January.

"We believe it is important to re-examine these statutes," he said. "Our own representatives will be available to provide input on this issue if hearings are held or another forum for discussion is developed."

The Illinois bill, which is in response to the national rash of sex-abuse allegations against Catholic priests, would require members of the clergy to report suspicions of child sexual abuse and would give prosecutors 10 years after the child turns 18, instead of three years, to file charges.

The bill would give clergy the same legal responsibility that teachers and social workers have in reporting suspected abuse. Failure to do so could result in up to three years in prison.

"This isn't a bill I relish," state Sen. Dan Cronin, R- Elmhurst, told the Senate during floor debate Thursday in Springfield, Ill. "(But) I think all of us recognize there is a very, very serious need for it."

However, the bill contains an exception for information obtained in the confessional or in counseling. That has some critics wondering if it will be effective in forcing clergy to expose any colleagues they suspect of abuse, because many priests consider counseling to be a constant duty.

"Historically, priests have defined that term very, very broadly," said Clohessy of Maplewood, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The Illinois legislation would change state law to allow criminal prosecution of alleged child sex abusers to start up to 10 years after the child turns 18, which is the same standard used in Missouri.

Current Illinois law sets that statute of limitations at three years.

What has some critics concerned is an exception written into the law exempting "confessions or admissions made to the clergyman in his or her professional capacity."

Bob Swart of St. Louis, who said he was abused by a priest in Florida, said that in his case, the abuse started in counseling sessions with a priest, which would have been exempt under the Illinois measure - as would any confessions that that priest might have made to fellow priests under the auspices of counseling.

"I wouldn't want to get into the church-and-state issue with the confessionals, but that 'counseling' part is pretty loose," said Swart. "This may sound good to the Legislature, but it sounds better to the priests because it means they've won."

The legislation now returns to the House for another vote.

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests