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  Bid to Change Sex-Crimes Law Faltering

By Lomi Kriel
San Antonio Express-News
April 20, 2005

Austin — In the days, months and years after the abuse happened, Eduardo Ram�n III couldn't sleep.

Even after the man accused of abusing him, Father Carlos Lozano, a dean at St. Anthony's High School Seminary, got 10 years probation and deferred adjudication, Ramon still had trouble sleeping.

"He had nightmares, so many sleepless nights," said his mother, Barbara Garcia Boehland. "He would see the priest at the foot of his bed."

Ram�n's mother came home one day to find her son had committed suicide.

Years later, Garcia Boehland's voice still breaks when she recalls that Lozano violated probation and eventually was put behind bars, but by then it was too late for her son.

His death motivated her to start San Antonio's chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. And now it motivates her to drive to Austin to press lawmakers to repeal the state's criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases.

Under current law, child victims have until their 28th birthday to file criminal charges.

Proponents of repealing the statute of limitations for children argue that youths, especially boys, have a hard time dealing with abuse and often silence their memories for years.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, author of Senate Bill 1019, said victims "are ashamed, embarrassed and confused. They've been betrayed by an adult and are less likely to turn to an adult for help. The person abusing them often has some sort of power over them."

Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, heard a similar bill in a subcommittee Monday but seemed skeptical of it, asking the witnesses tough questions, and ultimately leaving the bill pending.

Stephanie Burt's son Tommy was abused from the age of 6 by a preacher in the East Texas town of Henderson, but when he finally remembered it at 26, the charges came nearly too late.

The Burts got a written confession from Kenneth Ward, who admitted abusing about 30 boys, crimes that could have imprisoned him for life. Instead he got four years for a single indecency conviction. All the victims except one were too old to press charges.

The law would not be retroactive, Burt said, so it wouldn't help her and her son, but it might help future victims get some sort of closure.

Despite the string of emotional stories, hopes for a change look dismal.

Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, who chairs the criminal jurisprudence committee hearing the bills, said the statute of limitations serves a purpose, encouraging prosecutors and victims alike to come forth with their crimes in a speedy manner, and discouraging false reports.

Also, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the criminal justice committee, said he harbors "serious concerns" about repealing the limitation.

"We have to move carefully into allowing someone to make charges 20, 30, 40, 50 years later," he said. "I'm not convinced at this point."

While no one disagrees that sexually abusing kids is horrendous, what seems to be at the heart of the disagreement is the concept of repressed memory.

Increasingly cited over the past five years during the Catholic sex abuse scandals, the theory that the brain conceals traumatic events, such as being sexually abused by adults, is hard to prove.

Richard McNally, a Harvard psychologist, has run experiments on the subject, and found that victims of violent abuse tend to remember the incidents vividly, so much so that they needed treatment right away.

"In most cases, victims always remembered abuse; they've never forgotten it," he said. "When abuse is forgotten it was not that severe that it terrified the person."

Others say vivid memories can return years alter, especially among child sex abuse victims.

"The mind puts it away because it's traumatic, just like with men who go to war and kill women and children," said Miguel Prats, state coordinator of SNAP. "They don't want to think about it."

Psychologists and prosecutors disagree about the validity of repressed memory, but they do agree that it's difficult to try old cases where there's little proof beyond faded memories.

Douglas Laycock, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that at some point, the cases become impossible to try.

"If you want to take somebody to court, you have to step up to the plate and do it," he said. "These are very serious accusations, and we can't encourage people to wait to make those accusations."

So while Burt and Garcia Boehland tell their stories, insisting that repeal of the statute will help put more pedophiles in jail, the bills remain stuck in committee.

 
 

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