Priest Names Said Not Enough; Lawmakers Seek Longer Statute of Limitations

By Randall Chase
Associated Press, carried in newszap
December 10, 2006

Dover — Catholic church officials in Wilmington have released the names of 20 suspected pedophile priests and dedicated the Advent season to victims of clergy sexual abuse, but state lawmakers say more needs to be done for victims of child sexual abuse.

Legislators plan to pursue action when the General Assembly reconvenes next month to allow victims of child sexual abuse more time to file civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers.

"We're still stuck with a lousy statute of limitations, and it needs to be fixed," said state Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Wilmington.

A New Castle County judge opened the door for victims a little further last week, ruling that the current two-year statute of limitations for civil claims does not apply to a man who allegedly suppressed memories of years of abuse by a Wilmington priest until 2002, when the church sex abuse scandal made headlines.

Superior Court Judge Calvin Scott Jr. said Eric Eden, who filed his lawsuit in 2004, could pursue claims against former Salesianum School principal Rev. James W. O'Neill and his religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.

Eden, now in his late 30s, filed his lawsuit within two years of the date he said memories of his abuse surfaced.

A bill introduced by Rep. Lavelle this year would have given a victim six years from the date of abuse to file a lawsuit, or six years from the date of remembering the abuse or realizing he had been injured. The bill would have applied retroactively, providing a two-year filing window for alleged victims otherwise barred from claims because the two-year statute of limitations had expired.

Rep. Lavelle subsequently introduced a substitute bill removing the retroactive provision and changing the statute of limitations to 25 years after the alleged victim had reached the age of 18. That bill died in the waning hours of the legislative session amid questions about retroactivity and granting immunity to the state and to school districts.

"The diocese was opposed to retroactivity and reviving barred claims," said Bob Krebs, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. "We were also in favor of the legislation being applied to everyone fairly."

Rep. Lavelle said legislative analysts estimated that the retroactivity provision would cost the state about $18 million, and that school districts were concerned about higher insurance premiums.

Rep. Lavelle sponsored, then withdrew, amendments barring immunity for state and local governments and school districts, and allowing retroactive claims against alleged abusers, but not against institutions.

"My recollection is that a number of lawyers said retroactivity would be difficult from a constitutional perspective," said House Majority Leader Wayne Smith, R-Wilmington.

The House eventually passed the bill with a Lavelle amendment providing immunity to the state, but not local governments and school districts, and an amendment by Rep. Smith barring claims based solely on recovered memory.

The Senate further revised the bill by extending immunity to school districts and allowing retroactive claims against abusers.

Sen. Karen Peterson, sponsor of the Senate amendment, said the immunity provisions were intended to ensure that public employees acting in good faith would not be held liable in child sexual abuse lawsuits.

"The immunity ... is really for a public official who is doing their job and gets sued," said Sen. Peterson, D-Stanton. "Molesting children is not doing your job. It's not an official duty."

Nevertheless, immunity may not be included in a new bill.

"I am not going to give immunity to school districts," Rep. Lavelle vowed. "That's an absolute nonstarter for me."

"I don't believe there should be immunity for the government," he added.

Anthony Flynn, an attorney for the Wilmington diocese, agreed with Rep. Lavelle's approach.

"If protecting children is the point, you've got to have everybody liable or potentially liable, so that's absolutely the right thing to do," Flynn said.

While church officials are opposed to retroactive claims in principle, Mr. Flynn could not say what stance they might take on new legislation until they see what is proposed.

"Cases that are 10, 20, 30 years old are just very difficult to adjudicate or defend," he noted.

Attorney Thomas Neuberger, whose firm is representing Eden, said legislation that does not include a retroactive or "look back" provision for victims to sue for past abuse would be inadequate.

"The problem with that is it doesn't address the issue of all the (current) victims," Mr. Neuberger said.

Meanwhile, Wilmington Bishop Michael Saltarelli's decision last month to release the names of 20 priests against whom the diocese received substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse has renewed efforts by victims of abuse to hold church officials accountable.

"We were very glad to see Bishop Saltarelli's actions," said Paul Steidler of Reston, Va., a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Mr. Steidler said SNAP is trying to persuade the bishop of Arlington, Va., to follow in the steps of Wilmington and about a dozen other diocese around the country in releasing the names of suspected pedophile priests.

Earlier this month, Mr. Steidler and other SNAP members passed out leaflets in a Herndon, Va., neighborhood warning residents that Rev. Edward Dudzinski, whose name is on the list released by Bishop Saltarelli, lived among them.

"To be honest, it shouldn't fall to deeply wounded child sex victims to alert unsuspecting families about nearby child molesters," said SNAP national director David Clohessy.

Mr. Dudzinski lives in the Herndon home with three other people, including Arlene Flanegin and her 10-year-old son.

Mr. Clohessy said such leafleting by SNAP has led to the discovery of other abuse victims, but Ms. Flanegin said the group was intrusive and unwelcome.

"They put fliers all over our neighborhood," said Ms. Flanegin, who described Mr. Dudzinski as "a longtime friend and housemate."

Attempts to reach Mr. Dudzinski for comment were unsuccessful. Ms. Flanegin said he told her about his history about two years after she moved into the rented home.

"He's been respectful, he's never been inappropriate," she said. "I've lived here eight years, and I have no reason to fear for my child."


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