Bill to Extend Time for Abuse Victims to Sue in Civil Cases

By Mike Chalmers
News Journal [Delaware]
November 17, 2006

The release of the identities of 20 priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse shows the need for a change in Delaware's statute of limitations for civil lawsuits, two legislators said Thursday.

Their bill, which would give victims more time to sue their molesters, will get another chance in the General Assembly in January, said Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, and Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley. Victims would have 25 years after they turn 18 to sue their abusers, instead of within two years of reporting the abuse, as the law now requires.

Both chambers supported the bill earlier this year, but the legislative session ran out before they could agree on the details.

The bill would give victims time to fully understand the impact of the abuse, Peterson said. Counseling and therapy sessions can cost victims as much as $90,000, she said.

"A lot of people will bury the damage for years and years," she said. "In their early 40s, people begin to connect the dots."

The state's statute of limitations on abuse cases has been a contentious point in discussions about how the diocese has handled accusations over the years.

Shortly after the diocese disclosed in 2003 that it knew of 18 credible cases, then-Attorney General M. Jane Brady and her prosecutors examined the allegations. Brady concluded that the state was unable to prosecute any of the cases because the clock for prosecuting any child sexual abuse case expires two years after the abuse is reported.

Delaware lawmakers removed the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child sexual abuse a few years ago and added a window of opportunity during which older cases could be revived and prosecuted. But shortly after that bill was signed into law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case, striking down the retroactive window as unconstitutional.

Lavelle said the state now has a "failed and flawed statute of limitations."

The bill Peterson and Lavelle originally proposed would have allowed victims to sue their abuser's employer, such as a church, school, government agency or civic organization. But that provision would have cost the state $15 million to $18 million in increased liability, Peterson said.

The revised bill, which the legislators said they will introduce in January, would preserve victims' rights to sue an abuser's employer, but only within two years of the offense, she said.



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