Help from Megan's Mom
Maureen Kanka Now Advising Those Who Were Abused by Priests
By Jeff Diamant
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
May 22, 2003
She earned national fame advising people to craft versions of Megan's Law so children could avoid the fate suffered by her daughter Megan, who was raped and killed in 1994 by a neighbor who turned out to be a convicted sex offender.
Now, Maureen Kanka of Hamilton Township, whose persistence shaped laws requiring community notification when convicted child abusers move to a neighborhood, has turned her attention to a different group of child victims.
Since December, Kanka has been advising the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the main victims' group in the sex-abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church, on how to shepherd victims' legislation through statehouses including New Jersey's.
"What led me to talk to them was they were children that were sexually abused by someone," said Kanka, 42. "They reached out to me about a meeting, and I invited them over."
So far, SNAP's goals -- legislation that would allow victims to sue priests and their employers despite expired statutes of limitations -- have gained little momentum in Trenton. Several legislators have sponsored relevant bills since March 2002, but none has been called for debate or a vote.
Still, SNAP members say they're pleased that someone who led one of the most successful legislative drives in recent decades is on their side. They regard her as a guru for people who want to pass laws related to child protection.
"She is a pioneer, not only a pioneer in revising criminal law, but in a lot of ways she's a moral leader," said Mark Serrano, a national spokesman for SNAP, who was abused as a child by a former priest, the Rev. Jim Hanley, at the Church St. Joseph in Mendham. "She serves as such a shining example of hope. We are absolutely delighted to have her counsel."
A caravan of five SNAP vehicles that drove to Kanka's house in December felt "very much like a pilgrimage, because of the great sacrifice she's paid," Serrano said.
After Megan died on July 29, 1994, Maureen Kanka and her husband, Richard, pushed for bills that three months later became Megan's Law, requiring that public notice be given when sex offenders are released from prison.
Maureen Kanka has spoken to thousands of politicians, police officers and parents across the nation and abroad about the need for similar laws and child protection. She has worked part time as a spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor's office, explaining the law to educators, parents, police and neighborhood groups. She turned down an offer to run for public office.
President Bill Clinton signed a federal form of the law in 1996, and every state has a version. They are available on the Web site of the Megan Nicole Kanka Foundation, which Maureen and Richard set up to provide children's organizations with funding to conduct police background checks on potential volunteers.
Kanka, who is Catholic, has not taken a high-profile role in SNAP's fight. She met face to face with SNAP members once, in December, and gave them tips on getting legislation passed. She says she maintains monthly telephone contact with Serrano.
She agrees with the group's aims.
"I think that there should definitely be no statute of limitations on any type of reporting of crimes" involving children, she said.
Her main advice to SNAP has been to focus on specific goals and to not be overly ambitious or pushy.
"They have to look at things that will really be feasible to get passed," Kanka said. "I said they should decide exactly what they're looking for, and that if they're looking to be aggressive, they won't have much success."
She also arranged a meeting between the group and state Sen. Peter Inverso (R-Mercer), an original sponsor of Megan's Law, and urged SNAP to use media attention to its benefit.
"I offered to help them in any way I could," Kanka said. "I did feel that because of the success and the name recognition we had, that we would have the benefit of helping them open some doors."
Bill Bolan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents New Jersey's bishops and opposes SNAP's legislative agenda, declined to comment when asked about Kanka's involvement with the group.
In any case, SNAP's lack of success in Trenton has led some to question whether Kanka's advice will bear fruit.
"She's give us very strong wisdom we didn't otherwise have," said Buddy Cotton, president of SNAP's New Jersey chapter, adding, though, that "even though Inverso is sympathetic to our cause, the path that (Kanka) has given us for progress ends with" legislative leaders who have not favored the bills.
One bill backed by SNAP, sponsored by Rep. Neil Cohen (D-Union) would eliminate the statute of limitations in civil actions for sex abuse and eliminate the "doctrine of charitable immunity," which protects many nonprofit organizations from lawsuits.
Another bill, also sponsored by Cohen, maintains the state's two-year statute of limitation following discovery of the abuse, but calls for a one-year window from July 2003 through June 2004 for alleged victims to file sex-abuse claims on cases outside the statutes of limitation.
In opposing the bills, the New Jersey Catholic Conference has said it is unfair to force people or institutions to defend claims that are decades old.
Bolan also has said the bills would endanger not only churches, but also charities, schools and hospitals that also would become more liable.
SNAP has kept up the lobbying. One SNAP member and another member's mother were part of a contingent that met yesterday with staffers of Senate Co-President Richard Codey (D-Essex), said Greg Gianforcaro, a lawyer representing 27 people who say priests abused them.
Serrano acknowledges there are differences in the crimes against Megan Kanka from those against SNAP members, but said SNAP still deserves to be taken seriously in Trenton.
"Hers (Megan's) is so overwhelming, an instant tragedy. Ours is tragedy over a lifetime," he said. "Many of us are still standing here to speak of it. A lot of people will see one of us standing as adults advocating a change in the law, and it's easy for them to forget the children we once were."
Jeff Diamant covers religion. He can be reached at (973) 392-1547 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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