Restitution and Protection

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
March 7, 2004

The next several days will be crucial for victims of clergy sexual abuse in Wisconsin. Today, sexual abuse victims will meet with officials of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee to discuss restitution issues. Sometime before the close of business on Thursday, the state Assembly will take up a bill aimed at providing better protection for children who might become victims of sexual abuse.

Whatever happens later in the week in Madison, we hope that church officials today are able to convince victims' groups - and not just themselves - that the church is serious about treating victims of past abuse fairly. Fairness in this case should include appropriate therapy for victims and the release of the names of clergy legitimately accused of abuse. Treating victims fairly is one of the few ways the church can regain the credibility squandered by too many bishops who covered up the crimes of pedophile clergy, as two national reports recently detailed.

And whatever happens in Milwaukee, we hope the Assembly takes the watered-down version of the clergy sexual abuse bill approved by the Senate and turns it into a measure that will actually protect children. In particular, the Assembly ought to restore language that would require clergy to report all cases of suspected abuse and add a one-year window during which victims of past abuse could sue the church.

The bill would place clergy on the list of professionals required to report any suspected sexual abuse of children. But giving more weight to the voices of clergy than to the voices of those who were abused as children, some senators changed the bill to require reporting only in cases that involved other clergy. No other profession on the list has that kind of escape clause. Allowing it to stand alongside the exception for pastoral communications would render the reporting requirement nearly useless.

As to the window, legislators who oppose it argue that such a measure would be ruled unconstitutional by the courts. But no one knows that, and victims groups point out that such windows have worked in other places. Besides, what's wrong with coming down on the side of victims for once and letting the courts figure out what's constitutional?

That's what legislators did on the school choice issue, when they kept the concerns of children foremost and allowed poor parents to get school vouchers for their kids despite claims that vouchers would be ruled unconstitutional. In considering what to do in the next few days, legislators should again ask themselves what is best for children - past and future.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.