Statute of Limitations Lobbying
By Bill White
April 11, 2016
I mentioned in Sunday's column that I had heard from a woman who was dismayed at the letter inserted into her church bulletin two Sundays ago. Bishop John O. Barres was lobbying parishioners to contact their state legislators in opposition to bills that would extend the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases.
She was not the only churchgoer I heard from about this. In fact, one of them wrote a letter to Barres and sent me a copy, hoping it could be published in some way.
It's too long for a letter to the editor and kind of short for a Your View, so I agreed to use it here.
Before I get to it, I'll remind you that the state House is expected to vote today on a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal cases of child sex abuse and extend the age when civil suits can be filed from 30 years old to 50. A proposed amendment -- a compromise with those who won't accept a two-year window in which anyone can file a civil suit, even if they're blocked by the statute of limitations at the time they were abused -- would allow any victim to sue up until age 50.
This would give many more victims access to the courts to identify and expose their abusers, but it wouldn't help older victims. As a practical matter, the compromise would affect 20 years worth of victims. Those who are older than the present age limi of, 30 would have until 50 to file suit under the amendment.
Anyone younger than 30 at the time the bill is signed into law will be covered under the provision already in the bill, extending the age to 50, so the amendment wouldn't affect them or people who already are older than 50 when the bill becomes law.
My position is that if this compromise with Republican leadership gets the bill the necessary votes to move it on to the Senate, I'm in favor. It would be a big step forward.
The other order of business is to remove a poison pill inserted into the bill that partially lifts sovereign immunity protection in child sex abuse cases. Sovereign immunity shields public entities such as public schools.
I have no problem with exploring the sovereign immunity question, but by inserting it into this bill, its opponents are deliberately muddying the waters in hopes of killing or delaying the legislation. So the House needs to get that provision out of there and send a clean bill to the Senate.
If you want to watch the debate, the House floor is streamed live here. They're scheduled to go into session at 1 p.m.
Here's the letter that parishioner Paul Martin sent to the bishop. I've also provided a link to the bishop's letter here.
Dear Bishop Barres,
I read with anger your letter to Allentown diocesan parishioners, urging them, in the name of Christ, to contact our legislators “about the detrimental effects of . . . proposed legislation . . . that would eliminate the statute of limitations in civil cases of child sex abuse.” While I’m encouraged by the measures the diocese has implemented to protect children, I’m stunned by the church’s fight to limit accountability for those responsible for abuse.
It’s obvious, as you say, that “over time, evidence and witnesses become unavailable and memories fade.” But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for defendants to receive a fair hearing. We should let the courts, in their role as arbiters of justice, decide what evidence should be admitted against those facing civil actions. And we should let juries weigh such evidence in order to bring a sense of justice to those long deprived of it. Your unwillingness to trust the courts allows the many victims to be abandoned yet again by the church that first betrayed them, leading them in their solitary guilt and suffering to suicide, alcoholism, broken marriages and ruined lives.
If the ministries you refer to would suffer as a result of “crippling damage awards,” that’s the price the church has earned for the dark crimes and betrayals, its complicity with evil. And if the charitable work of the church is damaged, that, too, must be part of the cost. In finding ways to continue its work, we must pray and trust in Christ. In its refusal to allow the statute of limitations to be expanded, the church has behaved like any corporation, first denying, then admitting reluctantly, only under duress, the crimes of which it is guilty, and finally placing the god of money above the good of those it abused. Furthermore, your contention that the “only meaningful effect would be to encourage lawsuits,” suggests that many of those lawsuits would be false or frivolous and that the long-suffering would find no sense of relief in being vindicated. That, to me, suggests a shallow empathy and a disregard for the abused.