Wisconsin Legislature: Victims Look for Window in Statute of Limitations

By Todd Richmond
Pioneer Press [Minnesota]
September 19, 2003

People who say they were abused by priests as children urged legislators Thursday to change state law to let them file civil lawsuits against their attackers regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.

The victims asked members of two legislative committees to amend a bill to give them a one-year window to file lawsuits in any case.

They spoke at a joint hearing of the Assembly Judiciary and Senate Judiciary, Corrections and Privacy committees on the bill. The bill would extend the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in sex abuse cases and require churches to report sex abuse allegations to authorities.

The victims said many of their cases are too old to fall within the bill's 15-year extension of the statute of limitations for filing suits, denying them the chance to take on their attackers in court.

"The statute of limitations is evil. It protects child molesters," said Barbara Blaine, national president of Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests. "I'm asking you to be courageous and take the legislation one step further."

The bill's authors, Rep. Peggy Krusick, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said a one-year retroactive window would be unconstitutional.

"It would make our bill dead on arrival," Darling said.

Krusick said the bill would:

expand the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges in a child sex abuse case to age 45 instead of age 31, as prescribed by law.

allow victims in child abuse cases to file civil lawsuits until age 35 instead of age 20.

hold churches legally responsible for clergy sexual abuse.

add clergy to the professions required to report sex abuse of children to police.

The bill needs committee approval before the full Legislature can consider it.

If the bill becomes law, it would open the door to some lawsuits against religious organizations that many believe the state Supreme Court closed in 1995. The court ruled it couldn't decide whether religious institutions improperly hired, supervised or trained their workers because the U.S. Constitution prohibits such a review.

The Roman Catholic Church is still struggling with allegations church leaders covered up allegations of sexual abuse by priests by transferring them to other dioceses.

The Milwaukee Roman Catholic Archdiocese said between 250 and 300 people have contacted it since 1994 for help with problems related to sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

The numbers, along with facts about the accused priests and the costs of dealing with the allegations, were released for the first time in a report mailed this week from Archbishop Timothy Dolan to Catholic households in the 10-county archdiocese.

Madison Diocese Bishop Robert Morlino told committee members the bill would help restore people's faith in the church. "Our support for this legislation is a vital component of our effort to heal those wounded by clergy misconduct," he said.

Blaine said the bill may protect children in the future from clergy abuse but offers no redress for older sex abuse victims.

Brenda Varga, 41, of Plover told the committees she wants justice against a priest who abused her when she was 9, but the statute of limitations has run out.

Varga said the priest would take her to road waysides and kiss her with a mouth that smelled like cigars.

She didn't seek counseling until she turned 35, after she realized she didn't trust anyone with her children.

"They (her children) always ask me why I cry, why I'm so sad," Varga said, nearly sobbing. "I said 'Someday when you're old enough, I'll tell you about the bad people in church."'

Rep. David Cullen, D-Milwaukee, told Krusick and Darling he has prepared an amendment creating the one-year window for any lawsuits.

"Without some sort of club in this, my fear is this will be the end of the issue," Cullen said. "Let the courts decide. If they lose, they lose."

John Huebscher, Wisconsin Catholic Conference executive director, said the conference probably wouldn't support the one-year window.

"You may have people out there with deep pockets and anticipate a hunting season on the Catholic Church," he said.


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