When Is an Abuse Allegation Too Old?

The Associated Press
April 18, 2002

Pursuing allegations of sex abuse by clergy from years or even decades ago, prosecutors across the country are scrutinizing the limits on trying old cases and toughening demands for Roman Catholic Church records.

There's even talk among the nation's prosecutors of circumventing statutes of limitations, with a theory that the legal clock shouldn't start ticking if church officials kept allegations from law enforcement.

"The cloak of secrecy has been the biggest problem," said Kevin Meenan, the district attorney in Casper, Wyo., and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

For prosecutors, church officials and victims alike, the passage of time is a difficult issue.

Many victims say they struggle for years before coming forward with their stories. Church officials in some dioceses, after the burst of attention in recent months, said they didn't release information about older abuse charges because too much time had passed.

Prosecutors often approach years-old cases with worry, too.

"Every day and every year that goes by, these cases are more difficult to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," said David Gorcyca, the Oakland County, Mich., prosecutor.

That's partly the reason for statutes of limitations — memories become less reliable and witnesses harder to find — and laws vary from state to state.

Massachusetts has a 15-year limit for child rape and a six-year limit for sexual touching, though the clock stops if a suspected abuser leaves the state. California changed its law so a six-year limit was eliminated for child molestation cases. Eleven other states have no time limits for prosecuting most sexual offenses against children.

Meenan said strategies are still emerging among the nation's prosecutors on how statutes of limitations could be challenged, and what steps could be taken to improve existing laws.

"Everybody's taking a look," he said. "People are arguing that the church received the information, and covered up the information, therefore the statute can be tolled (put on hold) until the information comes to light." But he's unaware of the argument actually being made in court yet.

Other challenges could be based on the premise that the time limit shouldn't begin until the minor is an adult, and makes the decision whether to report, Meenan said.

"At every prosecuting attorney association nationwide, this issue is going to be addressed," Gorcyca said.

But others are skeptical.

"Most judges have been very, very reluctant to read in changes to the law," said Patrick Schiltz, dean of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, who has defended dioceses in hundreds of abuse cases in civil courts.

"The bottom line is prosecutors are political beings, many of them are feeling great political pressure to do something. ... They're just searching for long shots."

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, insisted church leaders have been referring abuse complaints to district attorneys for years.

But in many instances, prosecutors have concluded the evidence was insufficient, and have told the dioceses they should handle the allegations internally, he said. He also said many victims have asked that their claims be kept confidential.

Prosecutors say they have acted on information when it's been offered in the past, but now they're becoming more aggressive.


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