Bill Extends Time to File Sex-Abuse Lawsuit
Dioceses Claim Proposal 'Punitive, Vindictive'

By Martin DeAgostino
South Bend Tribune [Indiana]
January 28, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana's Roman Catholic dioceses, embroiled in the clergy sex abuse scandal, oppose an effort to make it easier for victims to sue their abusers.

The dioceses say the proposed legislation does little to protect victims but exposes churches, schools, civic associations and other child-oriented organizations to "deep pocket" lawsuits aimed at financial damages.

"It is a punitive, vindictive bill, and it will not help victims," said William Wood, a lawyer for the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of Indiana's five Catholic dioceses.

The bill is also opposed by the Insurance Institute of Indiana, which said it would bear the costs of successful lawsuits.

The House Judiciary Committee sent the bill to the full House anyway, but only after removing two controversial provisions that snagged debate for nearly an hour.

As amended, House Bill 1061 lets people file lawsuits against their abusers until age 31, whether or not they had raised the issue previously. Current law requires people to file lawsuits by age 20, even though criminal prosecutions can occur until age 31.

Advocates say the proposed change in civil law reflects the fact that few abused children come to grips with the damage done to them until they are adults -- if then.

"It took me 23 years to come forward," said Sandra Teagardin Thomas, an Indianapolis woman who said she was sexually abused for years by a lay female teacher at a Catholic high school. "If I could have come forward (sooner), I would have, but I thought it was my fault."

Teagardin Thomas said the woman is still teaching, despite her complaints to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

The bill was proposed by an advocacy group called Justice & Protection for Abused Children, with support from a national organization called Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and a lay Catholic group called Voice of the Faithful-Indianapolis.

But the bill is not limited to clergy sex abuse, even though supporters say the Catholic Church's crisis drove their legislative efforts.

"Everyone understands smoking causes cancer," SNAP's national president, Barbara Blaine, told The Tribune last week. "Everyone doesn't understand (that) victims of child sexual abuse don't come forward until they're older."

Nor, she said, does everyone understand that the delay puts more children at risk as they are exposed to the same abuser who is never named or accused by the reluctant victim.

"They really protect child molesters, not kids," Blaine said of statutes of limitations.

Based on that concern, proponents wanted two provisions in the bill that lawmakers could not accept on practical or legal grounds.

One would give a window of opportunity to victims who cannot sue under current law, by allowing such lawsuits for the next 18 months.

The other would suspend the passage of time under the statute of limitations if an abuser exercises any kind of coercion, threats or intimidation against the victim.

Their removal from the bill disappointed the activists, who said victims need every possible opportunity to name their abusers and protect potential victims.

Ken Sauer, a Catholic member of Justice & Protection for Abused Children, said he was especially disappointed by the church's response, which he characterized as self-protection against the interests of children.

Wood, of the Indiana Catholic Conference, acknowledged that "it takes years" for victims to tell their stories. But he said the statute of limitations provides needed certainty in the law that would not be served by changing it.

"This is a trial lawyer's bill," he said. "They're going about it the wrong way here."

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Mae Dickinson, D-Indianapolis.

Staff writer Martin DeAgostino.


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