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February 13, 2006

Extend Window of Justice for Sex Abuse

The legislature should extend the statute of limitations for victims to sue over abuse by priests and others whose assaults took place years ago.


There is no question that public and private institutions should be subject to the same standard when it comes to civil court procedures and penalties involving the victims of child sexual abuse. That said, the Denver Catholic archdiocese is overreacting to legislation proposing to lift the statute of limitations for victims seeking damages for the pain they suffered years - even decades - earlier at the hands of an adult.

Whether it was a pedophile priest, a school teacher or a Boy Scout official, responsible adults and their institutions should not be able to avoid accountability for their acts.

The church is arguing that Colorado law makes it tougher to sue public schools under routine governmental immunity laws and therefore it should be just as tough to sue the church for its pedophile priests. Church officials say sexual misconduct in public schools is a more serious problem than it is in the Roman Catholic Church. To prove its point, the church has come up with 85 cases of public school teachers in Colorado dating back to 1997 who had their licenses revoked or denied due to alleged sexual misconduct. Apparently the church considers that far more serious than Colorado priests who allegedly repeatedly molested altar boys and other young boys.

The numbers game is a blatant effort by the church to divert attention from its responsibility to compensate priests' victims. The fact is, the church is under pressure because officials knew that priests were abusing children in their own flock yet covered it up, quietly moving the priests from parish to parish. In Colorado, at least two priests have been accused in court by two dozen young men of abusing them as boys. The number of victims might be even bigger, but their day in court has long ago passed, thanks to the statute of limitations that some lawmakers want to relax or eliminate for future cases.

The statute of limitations for suing a church or other private institution is two years from the date of a victim's discovery of injury. The same is true for bringing a suit against a school or other public entity under governmental immunity laws. The Denver archdiocese, in a letter read in each parish, questioned why the victim of a priest can "wait a lifetime" before suing the church, while "the victim of exactly the same and even more frequent abuse" in a public school loses their claim after 180 days. In fact, the window is two years, said Tom Roberts, a lawyer representing clients suing the church.

Governmental immunity doesn't shield public employees from "willful and wanton" conduct, he said. A school also could be sued under the Federal Civil Rights Act.

The church has every right to be wary of the potential embarrassment and financial pain that could result if more lawsuits are filed because of the legislation. More important, though, is to do right by any victims and set the church on a positive course in dealing with any future claims.

Up for debate today, Senate Bill 143 would open a window for lawsuits by those who have lost their day in court because the statute of limitations ran out. A one-year window in California led to about 800 lawsuits. Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald said she has proposed two years for Colorado, aware that it can take decades for a victim to come to terms with what was done to them.

In Ohio, lawmakers heard dramatic testimony while weighing a one-year window. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit, who was sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy and broke his silence after 60 years, recently urged the legislature to pass the bill, knowing full well it would cause the church pain. "It might seem easier to keep the evils hidden," Gumbleton said. "But I am convinced that a settlement of every case by our court system is the only way to protect children and heal the brokenness within the church."

Providing a temporary window for lawsuits is critical to giving sexual assault victims the opportunity to have their day in court. As Gumbleton said, "I do believe that the abusers need to be exposed."