Lawmakers Look to Extend Time for Child Abuse Lawsuits
State Legislation a Reaction to Clergy Crisis

By Alan Scher Zagier
Naples Daily News [Florida]
March 20, 2004

Childhood sex abuse victims stymied by a state law that limits the time to file civil lawsuits could soon have an additional eight years to pursue claims against their abusers.

Spurred by reports of widespread priest misconduct in Florida and throughout the country, two state legislators have introduced a bill in Tallahassee to significantly extend the statute of limitations for filing civil suits.

Under current law, victims must lodge legal complaints by age 25 or within four years after discovering a psychological injury or other illness caused by the abuse, whichever is later.

A proposal introduced earlier this month by Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, and Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, extends the time limit to age 33, which is 15 years after a victim reaches the age of majority.

"The statute of limitations sometimes prevents legitimate claims from going forward," said Aronberg, whose district includes a portion of south Lee County.

Aronberg, a former assistant state attorney general, said the proposed law recognizes that many victims of childhood sex abuse suppress those painful memories until years later.

"You're dealing with childhood memories and situations that don't come to the surface," he said. "The current cutoff date does not account for the unique circumstances of these cases."

Gannon unsuccessfully introduced a similar bill last year that provided a two-year grace period to adults who suffered sex abuse as children but didn't file civil complaints before the statute of limitations expired.

That two-year provision was eliminated from the current proposal after courts struck down a comparable law in California that prompted a flood of lawsuits, she said.

Attorneys for child abuse victims predict the proposal, if approved, will greatly increase the number of legal claims lodged against priests, coaches, teachers and others accused of sexually abusing minors.

"I think it's fitting and appropriate," said Jason Weisser, a West Palm Beach attorney who represents three siblings suing former Naples priest William Romero. "It would be wonderful."

Florida case law allows civil claims after the statute of limitations expires if "traumatic amnesia" can be established, Weisser said. But that exception applies only to individuals and not institutions such as churches or dioceses, he said.

Weisser alluded to a report released last month by the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops that found more than 10,000 abuse claims against 4,392 Catholic priests from 1950 to 2002. Those claims peaked in the 1970s and '80s, the report found.

The Florida Catholic Conference, which represents the state's seven Roman Catholic dioceses, has yet to take a formal position on the Gannon-Aronberg bill, executive director Mike McCarron said.

McCarron complimented the two legislators for their "good intentions" but cautioned that the rights of the accused must also be protected.

"It's a delicate area," he said. "You need to balance the rights of the victims and the rights of the accused. There's a legitimate concern about how far you can go before recollections start to fade."

The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee and three Senate committees. A Florida Catholic Conference lobbyist plans to add one amendment to the bill, according to Gannon.

In addition, the proposal amends the time in which mentally retarded and other "vulnerable" adults can file abuse claims to four years after the injured person leaves the care of the alleged abuser or up to seven years from the incident.

Another legislative proposal seeks to add priests and other clergy members to the list of professionals explicitly required to report abuse or neglect charges to child welfare officials.

But the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Lesley Miller Jr., D-Tampa, said he plans to withdraw the bill because a law approved last year addresses his concerns.

At present, no bills have been submitted to address the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges in child sex abuse cases.

That's a restriction that local top prosecutor Steve Russell has said limits his ability to aggressively pursue purported sex offenders, including Romero, a LaBelle resident who previously taught at St. Ann Catholic School in Naples; and Neil Flemming, who served at St. William Catholic Church in Naples.

Both men face civil lawsuits alleging sex abuse. They resigned or were removed from the priesthood following internal investigations by the Diocese of Venice, which supervises Catholic parishes in 10 Southwest Florida counties, including Collier, Lee and Sarasota.

For victims who are minors 12 and older, Florida law generally requires that criminal charges be filed within three years after the abuse took place or three years after the victim turns 16. If the victim is younger than 12 at the time of the abuse and it involves sexual penetration, there is no limitation on when prosecutors can file charges.


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