Wisconsin: Bill Would Erase Sex Abuse Suit Deadlines

Associated Press
January 17, 2008

Madison, Wis. (AP) -- People who believe they were sexually abused as children would no longer face a deadline for filing a civil lawsuit under a bill a legislative committee considered Wednesday.

Critics told the Senate Judiciary, Corrections and Housing Committee the bipartisan measure would expose the Catholic church in Wisconsin to expensive lawsuits and is probably unconstitutional. Supporters countered the state's current deadline -- file by age 35 -- is arbitrary and doing away with it would expose more sexual predators.

"This bill is about protecting victims and giving them the ability to tell their story," said Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, one of the bill's co-sponsors. "We truly believe it will make Wisconsin a sex predator's worst nightmare."

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed a law in 2004 that increased the statute of limitations for adults who think they were sexually abused as children from five years after the incident to age 35. The change was triggered largely by the Roman Catholic church clergy sex abuse scandal.

The bill would erase that deadline going forward and create a 3-year window during which someone who had a lawsuit dismissed because they were too old could renew their actions.

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan told the committee his diocese has paid more than $17 million in sex abuse mediation, therapy and outreach since 2002. The 3-year window would allow so many lawsuits his diocese could go bankrupt, he said.

"There is no Catholic 'Superfund' that can provide the monies this legislation will require of the church," he told the panel.

"We are at the limit of our ability to pay massive tort settlements "| plain and simple, a window is unjust."

James Friedman, a constitutional law expert at the Godfrey & Khan law firm in Madison, said the window likely violates the Wisconsin and U.S. constitutions. The statute of limitations clearly gives defendants the right not to be sued after it expires, Friedman said.

Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, stressed the bill isn't designed to single out any specific entity, such as the Catholic church.

She believes the bill is constitutional because it clearly reflects legislative intent and would protect people. She pointed out the state places no statute of limitations on murder and the age 35 deadline was picked at random.

"There is no statute of limitations on pain and suffering," Lassa said. "If they're 33, they can do it. At 36 they can't ... it's just an arbitrary line in the sand."

Vicki Polin, a 48-year-old counselor based in Baltimore, told the committee her mother and father sexually abused her when she was a child, including instances camping near Mukwonago. She confronted them in her 20s, and they cut off all contact. She learned last year her family was avoiding her until the statute of limitations had expired.

She said civil lawsuits would help victims pay for therapy. They also would compel the legal discovery process. That could uncover more information about possible victims, leading to identification of more abusers and, perhaps, criminal charges.

"It's validation," she said.

The bill got a cool reception from the committee. Sen. Jim Sullivan, a Wauwatosa Democrat and attorney, called the bill a "sweeping change of precedence." He questioned why the bill is needed since the state just increased the deadline to age 35 four years ago.

Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, asked Suder and Lassa why they didn't address the criminal statute of limitations. He also asked how many predators would escape litigation because they have no money for lawyers to win.

Lassa said the civil process could lead to criminal charges. Suder said he didn't know how many would escape a lawsuit because they're poor.

The committee wasn't scheduled to vote on the bill.


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