Sexual Abuse Suit at Odds with Law Limits
Child Advocates, Lawyers Disagree on Limitations Statutes for Such Cases
By Bill Murphy
June 18, 2000
A priest and the Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston were sued last year by three siblings who allege that the priest sexually abused them as teen-agers in the 1970s and a man who says he was abused as a teen starting in 1987.
But the case was dismissed earlier this year because the lawsuit was filed well past a two-year statute of limitations. Texas, like most states, limits the time period for filing personal injury suits.
Yet advocates for child sex-abuse victims and counselors who work with them say such statutes are outdated and fail to take into account that the trauma of being molested can prevent victims from coming forward for decades. For these people, they say, the statute of limitations needs to be extended or perhaps abolished.
"A couple times a week, we talk to people for whom it's too late," said the Rev. Thomas Economus, director of The Linkup: Survivors of Clergy Abuse Inc. in Chicago. "They've finally gotten to the point where they're ready to claim some measure of justice, and the legal system slams the door in their faces."
On the other side are lawyers who say the statutes exist to protect people from trying to defend themselves against allegations long after memories have faded, witnesses can't be found and evidence is scant.
"Eighty-year-old men shouldn't wake up one day and find themselves accused of something that happened 50 years ago," said Notre Dame College of Law professor Patrick Schiltz, who has represented more than 500 churches in sex-abuse cases brought against clergy.
The subject of the recent Harris County lawsuit, the Rev. Dennis Peterson, 52, says he didn't sexually abuse or have consensual sex with his four accusers, said his lawyer, David Feldman.
"Father Peterson has continued to deny all the allegations of sexual abuse," added diocesan lawyer Robert Scamardo.
The lawsuit alleged the diocese turned a blind eye to the problem at the time, but Scamardo said there were no reports that Peterson was an abuser before the lawsuit was filed.
State District Judge Tony Lindsay threw out the Peterson suit in March, saying the four who brought it hadn't met the statute of limitations. Lindsay rejected the argument of attorney John Kirtley of Dallas that his clients were exempt from the statute because they were of "unsound mind" because of the abuse.
In Texas, minors have until they are 20 years old to bring a civil lawsuit based on something that happened before they turned 18.
The four people, all now adults in Harris County, were far from unique in filing suit years past the deadline.
About 25 to 50 people a week call the National Crime Victims Bar Association in Arlington, Va., looking to be steered toward a lawyer who will bring a civil suit stemming from criminal behavior.
"A third of those calls are from victims of child sex abuse," said association director Jim Ferguson. "The reasons they have for not pressing a suit within two years are numerous and legitimate."
Recognition by adults that they were abused as children is so common that psychologists have given it a name, "delayed outcry," said psychologist Jennifer Welch, coordinator of psychological services at Children's Assessment Center in Houston, which solely treats molested children.
Many children, she said, don't report molestations because they are ashamed, humiliated and embarrassed, while others delay reporting because they don't recognize that what happened to them was sexual abuse.
Abusers, Welch said, often win over victims by giving them gifts and attention. In the case of teen-agers, she said, the abuser may give victims things they want, such as money, beer, alcohol, drugs, pornography.
The teens "feel like they owe the person. Or they may want more drugs or whatever it is they've been getting," Welch said. "And they minimize the abuse."
It may be decades before the abused see themselves as victims, Welch said.
"The majority of people don't come forward for years, even decades, because of the shame," added Economus, The Linkup director. "And when they do come forward it's usually when they find out through newspaper reports or word of mouth that the person has abused somebody else."
Economus, 40, said a priest abused him and his brother in the early 1970s, but they didn't accuse the priest publicly until 1990.
Schiltz, who defended churches and others in civil sex-abuse cases when he had a practice in Minneapolis, said he defended a Lutheran district and bishop in Minnesota in the early 1990s. In that lawsuit, a man charged that the district and a previous, long-dead bishop had turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by a pastor. The suit alleged that the pastor, in his 80s when suit was filed, had indecently touched the man in the early 1950s.
"How do you defend a suit like that?" Schiltz said.
The man didn't pursue the case after the suit against the bishop was thrown out.
Statutes of limitation for civil action in most states are similar to the one in Texas, Schiltz said. Once people reach 18, they have two, three or four years, depending on the jurisdiction, to bring civil suit for something that happened when they were children.
California has loosened its civil statute. Child sex victims there have until age 26 or three years after they realize they were psychologically harmed by abuse.
In New Jersey, lawmakers are weighing a bill that would abolish the civil statute of limitations for child sex-abuse cases.
In 1997, Texas lawmakers increased the criminal statute of limitations for serious child sex abuse, giving victims until they are 28 to go to police.
Economus said The Linkup favors abolishing the statute of limitations for child sex cases in both criminal and civil law.
In Harris County, Kirtley is appealing Lindsay's ruling. He said his clients are good examples of the kind of alleged sex-abuse victims who are unfairly hurt by the statute of limitations.
Two brothers and a sister, all of whom grew up in Alvin and now live in Harris County, allege that Peterson, ordained in 1973 at age 26, was a pot-smoking, party-loving priest who sexually abused them in the mid-1970s.
The brothers are now 36 and 41 and the woman is 42.
They allege that Peterson would ply them with marijuana, Valium or beer before abusing them.
Peterson was then an assistant at the church attended by the teens, St. Bernadette, and a family friend who wrestled with them in their living room, giving them "wedgies," the lawsuit alleged.
Also accusing Peterson is a 27-year-old local man, who says the priest sexually abused him starting in 1987, when he was 14.
The boy's parents took him to Peterson for counseling at St. Anne's Church in 1987 because he was behaving oddly. The boy's behavior allegedly changed because he had been molested by a lay person helping run the Boy Scout program at St. Bernadette in the mid-1980s.
The pair continued to have occasional sexual encounters through 1995 and once in 1997, when the man was 24, the lawsuit claimed.
Last fall, a Harris County grand jury refused to indict Peterson on a charge he sexually assaulted the man.
Peterson has been on medical leave since the suit was filed.
Feldman called all the plaintiffs' allegations "absurd" and said Peterson never molested anyone, never had consensual sex with the plaintiffs and never gave minors alcohol or drugs.
The 42-year-old woman plaintiff said she went to the Rev. Bill Pickard and the Rev. Art Nichols and reported that Peterson was abusing her and her brothers and giving them drugs and alcohol.
Scamardo says Pickard denies having such a conversation. Nichols is now dead.
Kirtley said the siblings had good reason to fear coming forward and reporting Peterson, a deputy constable who worked with juvenile delinquents for 17 years. Peterson relied on a sizable collection of handguns and rifles in his rectory quarters to intimidate them, the lawsuit alleged.
Feldman said Houston police and Harris County deputy sheriffs advised Peterson to carry a gun because he worked with delinquents.
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