States Follow California's Lead on Priest Abuse
Bills Would Extend Time Limits for Prosecution, Suits. Church Sees Threat to Religious Freedom
By Larry B. Stammer
The Los Angeles Times
February 13, 2003
As the impact of the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church increasingly moves toward the nation's courts, lawmakers around the country are debating proposals pioneered in California to extend time limits for criminal prosecutions of abusive priests and for civil lawsuits against church officials accused of shielding them.
The proposals could increase the financial liability of the church, which expects more than 1,000 suits to be filed nationwide this year alleging priests' sexual abuse of minors.
Organizations that lobby on behalf of sex-abuse victims and lawyers who are suing the church are actively pushing measures in at least 15 states.
The receptiveness in those state capitols shows a "heightened awareness by legislators of the extent of the problem and the failure of existing laws," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, most prominent of the victims groups.
But top Catholic Church lawyers warn that some of the proposals threaten freedom of religion.
"Through our wrong actions, we have opened the door for government to attempt to step more vigorously across the constitutional boundary between the business of religion and the business of government and remake the church in dangerous ways," Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a recent speech. "Someone has to say, 'Enough is enough' "
Church leaders are particularly concerned about a Kentucky measure that would remove the traditional confidentiality of the confessional. In most states, a priest generally does not have to provide evidence of criminal conduct when the information is gained during a confession. The proposed Kentucky law would eliminate that protection if a person had confessed that he or she sexually abused a minor.
"I understand the confessional is a sacred thing," said Kentucky state Rep. Susan Westrom, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "But I also understand our priests and ministers are the front line to God, and if they can't protect a child, what is their job? It's not just to pray for them. What is right is right and wrong is wrong."
But some church officials say such legislation would force priests to choose between observing "Caesar's law" and their sacred vows.
"It used to be the custom you'd never make a religious person or institution choose between following their faith and obeying the law," Chopko said in an interview.
Other Christian denominations share those concerns, said Father Charles H. Nalls, an Anglican and executive director of the nondenominational Canon Law Institute in Washington.
"We're hearing consistently from Catholic and Anglican priests who say they'll just go to jail, pure and simple," he said. "They will not violate the confessional seal under any standard. It's got a lot of Protestant denominations scurrying for their lawyers finding out what they are going to do. It raises a whole area of clergy liability."
Four states - New Hampshire, Texas, North Carolina and Rhode Island - already have laws that deny the clergy-penitent privilege. Twenty states, including California, explicitly recognize the sanctity of the confessional seal and do not require clergy to report child abuse disclosed under those circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In other states the law is not clearly spelled out.
Victims advocates say they realize that the Kentucky measure is controversial. Changing the time limits for prosecutions and lawsuits is a more effective way to hold the church accountable, they say.
The time-limit proposals fall into two main categories:
Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington are considering extending the statute of limitations for criminal cases against priests accused of abusing minors.
Currently, in most states, prosecutions can take place only if a victim reports the abuse within a few years of turning 18. The time limit varies from state to state, but five years is typical. Lobbyists for victims say that limit shields many abusers, because victims often need years to overcome denial, shame and isolation, and step forward.
Under a California law that several states are considering as a model, prosecutors can file charges against an allegedly abusive priest no matter how old the case so long as the charges are filed within one year of the victim reporting the incidents to authorities. The law was passed in 1994 and upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1999.
The lack of an extended statute of limitations has been an issue in several states. In New York, a Long Island grand jury said this week that the Diocese of Rockville Center had protected at least 58 abusive priests for decades. In some cases, church officials had tricked victims into believing the diocese was taking action, the Suffolk County Grand Jury said. But, the panel added, it could not issue indictments because of the state's five-year statute of limitations. The grand jury called for changes in the law.
The second major category of proposals would extend the deadline for alleged abuse victims to sue. Bills to accomplish that are being considered in Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington and Wisconsin.
The California Legislature last year passed a law suspending the statute of limitations for one year to let victims of long-ago abuse sue institutions that protected abusers. The law does not specifically mention the Catholic Church, but bishops statewide say they expect their dioceses to be the main targets of suits filed under the law.
Other legislation, being considered in at least 10 states, would add members of the clergy to those already required to report child abuse suspicions. Currently, most states require reporting from counselors, teachers and medical professionals. In some states, Catholic dioceses are supporting passage of mandatory reporting laws if the bills exempt information obtained in a formal confession.
Church officials and victims' advocates said the momentum of legislative action could increase the potential cost to the nation's dioceses. Catholic Church officials have estimated that the extended statute of limitations for civil suits could cost the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone millions of dollars, some of which the church said will be covered by insurance.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, said he expects the archdiocese to be named in several hundred new suits this year. Negotiations have been underway since the end of December to avoid trial and mediate most of those cases.
Most state legislative sessions have just begun, making the chances of legislation passing hard to assess, but the church is on the defensive after a year of headlines about abuse of children, advocates say.
"Clearly the fight is now in the various state legislatures around the country," said Beverly Hills attorney Raymond Boucher, who represents sexual abuse victims.
"As more and more states listen to the victims ... they realize that either we reach out and provide a vehicle for the victims to find justice or we risk the loss of lives and opportunity. That's really the choice," he said.
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