Sioux City Child Abuse Victims Want Their Day in Court

Sioux City Journal [Iowa]
Downloaded February 26, 2004

DES MOINES (AP) -- A man who said he was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest when he was 8 years old asked state lawmakers Wednesday to give victims of childhood sexual abuse their day in court.

The Sioux City man, now 45, is preparing to go to trial next year. Like other adults seeking damages for sexual abuse suffered as children, he said, he has faced challenges in his lawsuit against the Sioux City Diocese because of the state's statute of limitations.

The law says lawsuits must be filed within four years after the victim discovers the abuse and a connection between it and damage to their lives.

The man said he didn't come forward as a child because the priest had threatened him with "being stricken down by God."

Other victims of childhood sexual abuse say they suffered from mental illness or intimidation. Some say they were too humiliated to tell their story until they realized it was affecting their lives.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gene Maddox, R-Clive, would suspend the statute of limitations for a year, from July 1, 2004, to July 1, 2005, providing a window for similar lawsuits to be filed.

The Sioux City man urged the House Judiciary Subcommittee to approve the bill.

"The passage of this bill ... would be important for not only myself but for a lot of victims out there ..." he said. "Maybe it will allow them to come forward and go through the process and get some finality and some closure to what's occurred."

Rob Lengeling, a lawyer representing four plaintiffs in the Sioux City case, said lifting the time limit could give victims a way to "take back their lives, to regain what was taken from them."

The bill is similar to a law passed in California in 2002, which also opened up a one-year window for lawsuits to be filed by the adult victims of sexual abuse.

The California law led to a wave of lawsuits, Iowa lawmakers noted. In the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone, more than 200 priests were accused of molesting children.

Lawmakers said the bill wouldn't be confined to instances of church abuse.

If approved, the bill could have an effect on the Sioux City lawsuit, but "we're not planning to file other lawsuits just because of the statute," Lengeling said.

When asked whether changing the law would be a slippery slope to opening other types of lawsuits, such as personal injury claims, Lengeling said childhood sexual abuse is "a unique situation, which requires a unique approach."

The Diocese of Sioux City has "serious issues" with the legislation, said spokesman Jim Wharton.

"I think it's safe to say the Diocese of Sioux City has reservations, as well as the rest of the dioceses in the state," Wharton said.

The church has consistently stated that it is interested in working with victims and urges them to contact the diocese, Wharton said.

House Speaker Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, has said he backs the bill.

Sara Eide, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, said the group has been proactive in reaching out to victims, but has serious concerns about the bill, which she said "seeks to nullify a law that is intended to ensure justice for all parties."

"Our concerns would be in dealing with claims where alleged perpetrators are dead, memories have faded, witnesses or gone or evidence is diminished," she said. "This is why we have statutes of limitation in the first (place), to avoid these scenarios."

--Charlotte Eby of the Journal Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.