State Senate Oks Clergy Sex Abuse Bill

By Matt Pommer
The Capital Times [Wisconsin]
March 5, 2004

The state Senate has unanimously passed a bill toughening state law on sexual abuse by the clergy after clarifying they need not report sexual abuse evidence against persons not of the clergy.

Democrats argued unsuccessfully that it would be better that clergy report all of the sexual abuse situations they learn of outside confidential communication situations rather than focusing on sexual abuse by the clergy. That was rejected Thursday on a party line, 18-15 vote. The measure was sent to the Assembly for its review.

Sens. Chuck Chvala, D-Madison, and Judy Robson, D-Beloit, argued that other professionals such as teachers and health care workers are required to report apparent sexual abuse.

"I can't imagine we'd not require this of clergy," said Chvala.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dave Zien, R-Eau Claire, said it would undercut the ability of clergy to deal with the members of their congregations. He read letters from pastors objecting to the requirement that they report sexual abuse situations.

"It makes me an agent of the state," wrote a Baptist pastor in La Crosse.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the legislation was narrowed to focus on sexual abuse by the clergy.

The bill allows a person who is sexually abused while under 18 to file a damage suit against the abuser. It would allow a damage suit against the religious organization that employed the clergyperson if his supervisor knew or should have known the clergyperson had prior incidents.

Under current law, a civil suit for damages by sexual assault of a child must be filed within five years after the assault is discovered. The bill would require the injured person to file the action before he or she reaches the age of 35.

Criminal prosecution for sexual acts against a child by an instructor currently must be filed before the victim reaches the age of 31. The bill extends the limits for prosecution to age 45.

The measure had been endorsed by the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the Wisconsin Jewish Conference and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

Their leaders noted that 10 years ago the groups backed having clergy report sexual abuse. This bill "does so in a way that respects the confidentiality of pastor conversations with members of our congregations," they said in a letter to lawmakers. "We also support the expanded statue of limitations embodied in this bill as a reasonable effort to allow victims more time to seek justice in criminal and civil courts."


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