Effort to Extend Statute of Limitations for Child Abuse Lawsuits Fails in Tallahassee
Catholic Dioceses' Lobbyist Led Opposition, Bill Sponsor Says

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

For the second consecutive year, state lawmakers have rejected a proposal to allow more victims of childhood sex abuse to sue their abusers.

The proposed law sought to extend by eight years the age limit for abuse victims to file civil lawsuits. 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.

The bill won approval in the state Senate's Criminal Justice Committee on a 7-1 vote but died without even a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral. The Legislature adjourned April 30.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, blamed its failure on lobbying by the Florida Catholic Conference, which represents the state's seven Roman Catholic dioceses.

"These are the people who are supposed to be protecting our children," she said, a reference to widely publicized reform efforts following a rash of child abuse accusations against priests nationwide over the past two years.

A report released earlier this year by the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops 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.

Mike McCarron, executive director of the Catholic lobbying group, said its opposition was based on concerns over "expanded liability."

"At that point, we had to stand in a posture of seeing that thing not go forth," he said.

Kottkamp cited several problems with the legislation.

For one, the bill's language was "overly broad," he said.

Also, an existing law covers claims made in adulthood by victims who repressed memories of earlier abuse, said Kottkamp, a personal injury attorney.

"I don't really think the legislation is necessary," he said.

The "delayed discovery doctrine" Kottkamp referred to allows civil claims after the statute of limitations expires, but that exception applies only to individuals and not institutions such as churches or dioceses, said Jason Weisser, a West Palm Beach attorney.

Weisser, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor, represents three siblings suing former Naples priest William Romero.

Kottkamp also cited the higher priority of other proposals that deserved hearings in the Legislature's frantic final days.

"Time is short," he said. "We're not inclined to have a hearing just for the sake of having a hearing."

Yet in the state Senate, where the bill remained before a second committee without a hearing but could have been brought to the floor for a full vote, the sponsor of the upper chamber's version of the bill said he opted against that approach because of the House committee's inaction.

"Once she (Gannon) said it was dead, I didn't push it anymore," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, whose district includes a portion of south Lee County.

A national advocate for victims of abusive priests decried the Legislature's inaction.

"It's very disappointing to hear about the Florida Legislature's failure to extend the statute of limitations," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"From our point of view, the statutes (of limitations) are arbitrary and archaic and dangerous, because they make it harder to expose and prosecute child molesters."

Several other states, including Illinois and Connecticut, have extended the statute of limitations for not only civil complaints but also criminal charges in child abuse cases, Clohessy added.

In 2003, Gannon unsuccessfully introduced a similar bill in Tallahassee 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 most recent proposal after courts struck down a comparable law in California that prompted a flood of lawsuits, she said.

Gannon's bill also amended 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.


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