Church Abuse Case Tests New Law

By Lisa Kernek
Lincoln Courier [Springfield IL]
Downloaded December 5, 2003

SPRINGFIELD - A lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Springfield has become the first test case of a new state law extending the statute of limitations on sexual-abuse cases.

The diocese challenged the constitutionality of the law during a hearing Tuesday in Sangamon County Circuit Court. Associate Judge Steven Nardulli did not rule on the issue.

The case is being watched closely by representatives of abuse survivors' groups.

"If the church is successful in overturning the law, then Illinois reverts back to these archaic laws that actually protect child molesters rather than the children," said Barbara Blaine, president of Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Blaine traveled to Springfield to attend Tuesday's hearing.

Among those arguing against the diocese was Steve Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer who has brought hundreds of abuse claims against the Catholic church.

The new state law increases the window of opportunity for filing a civil suit from two to 10 years after a victim of sexual abuse reaches adulthood. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the bill in July.

Kevin Martin, a lawyer for the diocese, argued that the revised statute of limitations fails to clarify whether the new limit is five years or 10 and that its vagueness makes it unconstitutional.

Martin also argued that the newly enacted statute of limitations should not apply to a lawsuit that was filed in 1999, before the law was changed.

But lawyers arguing against the diocese maintained that the new statute of limitations applies retroactively to all pending cases.

"If it is constitutional on its face," Rubino said, "this court is duty-bound to apply it."

Tuesday's hearing was triggered by the diocese's motion to dismiss a sexual-abuse lawsuit on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. The lawsuit was filed in 1999 by Matthew McCormick, who said he had been sexually abused by a priest in Morrisonville in the early 1980s. McCormick, now 34, was in his early teens when the alleged abuse occurred.

The Rev. Alvin Campbell, the priest named in the lawsuit, has since died. In the late 1980s, Campbell was convicted of sexual abuse and served time in prison.

On Tuesday, McCormick sat beside the lawyers in the courtroom.

Members of his family watched from the gallery.

"We're just kind of curious to see if the law can change in the middle of a lawsuit," Kathie Sass, a spokeswoman for Springfield's Catholic Diocese, said before the hearing. "This has happened since the lawsuit was filed. It doesn't change our concern for Mr. McCormick or anyone else who has been harmed."

The lawyers debated the point at which the statute of limitations should start running in McCormick's case.

McCormick's lawyers said the clock started ticking when he realized the abuse caused a psychological injury. In McCormick's case, the statute of limitations was triggered in 1998, when he had a conversation with his sister, the lawyers said. That would mean their lawsuit would be valid under both old and new versions of the statute of limitations.

But lawyers for the diocese said McCormick realized his injury when he was still a teenager, as shown by his seeing a therapist. They said the statute of limitations started running for McCormick at age 18, the minimum age at which the statute can begin running, and that the case would have expired even under the new state limits.

The new law is at issue in two other abuse lawsuits, as well. Both involve teenagers who are suing St. Laurence High School and the Chicago Archdiocese over allegations of abuse by a school counselor in the 1990s.


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