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  Don't Let Michigan Courts Bury Priest Sex Abuse Cases
State must change statute of limitations for victims

By Justin C. Ravitz
The Detroit News
January 5, 2006

http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060105/OPINION01/601050321&SearchID=73231634622165

Four years ago a Massachusetts judge ruled Catholic Church documents about clergy sex abuse were relevant to public safety and authorized their release. A month later, a Boston Globe series launched the on-going scandal about the church's cover-ups of horrific child sex crimes committed by Catholic clergy.

In response, judges and lawmakers from coast to coast have issued rulings and enacted laws slowly to bring sorely needed sunlight to these deeply held secrets.

But Michigan judges, by providing a stilted interpretation of the state's statute of limitation laws, have kept the cover-up of clergy sex crimes shrouded in secrecy.

Pedophiles protected

While professing concern for child victims, who are now adults, Michigan appellate judges have stepped in to take cases from trial judges and summarily barred all lawsuits. Because of judicial intervention, Michigan victims have not been allowed to take a single deposition of pedophile priests or the church officials who employ them.

As a result, dozens of Michigan Catholic clergy have been suspended from active ministry, but escaped any accountability to their victims or the public. While victims have had the courage to offer to testify under oath, their abusers have managed -- due to church stonewalling and the extraordinary intervention of appellate judges -- to avoid interrogation. We do not know where dangerous pedophiles live; how many other children they have harmed; or what evidence the church may be hiding. By keeping us in the dark on these vital questions, Michigan kids remain at risk.

Last month, just 27 days after the Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed a case brought by Timothy Hassett, The News reported that Hassett's alleged predator, C. Richard Kelly Jr., had been "permanently removed from priestly ministry" due to allegations "of sexual misconduct with a boy in the early years of his ministry in Redford."

Case halted prematurely

Hassett's case against the Archdiocese of Detroit was stopped in its tracks, prematurely, before Kelly or any church officials could be questioned under oath.

The elected judges who stopped these lawsuits claim the "fraudulent concealment" law in Michigan does not apply. Yet that law makes clear that whenever a defendant conceals his or her identity and/or the existence of a claim from a would-be plaintiff, the statute of limitations is not activated until the victim discovers or should have discovered the concealment.

Countless victims in Michigan, as elsewhere, never suspected the church was protecting rapists and leaving them, defenseless kids, in harm's way. Until the revelations from Boston, the role of church leaders in covering up crimes by failing to report known sex offenders to the police -- instead, transferring them from parish to parish to avoid scandal -- was something few could have even imagined.

Don't condone concealment

But here in Michigan, the judicial die is cast. While attorneys will go to the Michigan Supreme Court for relief for Hassett and others, that relief is not likely to occur.

This court previously refused to review a case involving two victims of Jason Sigler, an ex-priest who pleaded guilty in 2003 to sexually abusing these two youngsters and others, and is serving a seven- to 15-year prison sentence in Michigan. These two victims were abused after church officials documented he had committed sexual crimes and sent him to a "treatment center" in New Mexico, where he abused many other kids.

Sigler was not captured and prosecuted in Michigan until one of his many Michigan victims saw on "60 Minutes" that New Mexico church officials paid $13 million to 17 victims. There was no doubt that Sigler abused these men as children and that the church placed him in parishes where he committed these crimes after knowing of his predatory, pedophilic history.

But their lawsuit, like Hassett's, was taken from the trial court by the Court of Appeals and dismissed. The Michigan Supreme Court did not even find the issues, which have attracted so much attention nationally, sufficiently important to warrant review.

Shred of hope remains

As hopeless as all this sounds, there is a shred of hope. Legislators in California and Illinois have effectively reformed statute of limitations laws and removed all doubt about the right of adult victims to sue institutions responsible for their abuse as children. Lawmakers in Ohio and New York are close to doing likewise. At least a dozen other states are considering such reforms. And it can happen here.

For many victims of these horrific sex crimes, each day is a struggle. Their road to recovery is a long and difficult odyssey. Our lawmakers cannot, of course, restore the stolen childhoods and shattered trust of these once-innocent children. But our legislators can make that road a little less arduous.

Justin C. Ravitz, a former Detroit Recorder's Court judge, is a Southfield trial attorney who has handled several sex abuse cases in the Michigan courts. Send e-mail to letters@detnews.com.

 
 

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