|States Follow California's
Lead on Priest Abuse
Bills would extend time limits for prosecution, suits. Church sees threat to religious freedom
By Larry B. Stammer
February 13, 2003
As the impact of the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church increasingly moves toward the nation's courts, lawmakers around the country are debating proposals pioneered in California to extend time limits for criminal prosecutions of abusive priests and for civil lawsuits against church officials accused of shielding them.
The proposals could increase the financial liability of the church, which expects more than 1,000 suits to be filed nationwide this year alleging priests' sexual abuse of minors.
Organizations that lobby on behalf of sex-abuse victims and lawyers who are suing the church are actively pushing measures in at least 15 states.
The receptiveness in those state capitols shows a "heightened awareness by legislators of the extent of the problem and the failure of existing laws," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, most prominent of the victims groups.
But top Catholic Church lawyers warn that some of the proposals threaten freedom of religion.
"Through our wrong actions, we have opened the door for government to attempt to step more vigorously across the constitutional boundary between the business of religion and the business of government and remake the church in dangerous ways," Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a recent speech. "Someone has to say, 'Enough is enough' "
Church leaders are particularly concerned about a Kentucky measure that would remove the traditional confidentiality of the confessional. In most states, a priest generally does not have to provide evidence of criminal conduct when the information is gained during a confession. The proposed Kentucky law would eliminate that protection if a person had confessed that he or she sexually abused a minor.
"I understand the confessional is a sacred thing," said Kentucky state Rep. Susan Westrom, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "But I also understand our priests and ministers are the front line to God, and if they can't protect a child, what is their job? It's not just to pray for them. What is right is right and wrong is wrong."
But some church officials say such legislation would force priests to choose between observing "Caesar's law" and their sacred vows.
"It used to be the custom you'd never make a religious person or institution choose between following their faith and obeying the law," Chopko said in an interview.
Other Christian denominations share those concerns, said Father Charles H. Nalls, an Anglican and executive director of the nondenominational Canon Law Institute in Washington.
"We're hearing consistently from Catholic and Anglican priests who say they'll just go to jail, pure and simple," he said. "They will not violate the confessional seal under any standard. It's got a lot of Protestant denominations scurrying for their lawyers finding out what they are going to do. It raises a whole area of clergy liability."
Four states — New Hampshire, Texas, North Carolina and Rhode Island — already have laws that deny the clergy-penitent privilege. Twenty states, including California, explicitly recognize the sanctity of the confessional seal and do not require clergy to report child abuse disclosed under those circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In other states the law is not clearly spelled out.
Victims advocates say they realize that the Kentucky measure is controversial. Changing the time limits for prosecutions and lawsuits is a more effective way to hold the church accountable, they say.
The time-limit proposals fall into two main categories:
Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington are considering extending the statute of limitations for criminal cases against priests accused of abusing minors.
Currently, in most states, prosecutions can take place only if a victim reports the abuse within a few years of turning 18. The time limit varies from state to state, but five years is typical. Lobbyists for victims say that limit shields many abusers, because victims often need years to overcome denial, shame and isolation, and step forward.
Under a California law that several states are considering as a model, prosecutors can file charges against an allegedly abusive priest no matter how old the case so long as the charges are filed within one year of the victim reporting the incidents to authorities. The law was passed in 1994 and upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1999.
The lack of an extended statute of limitations has been an issue in several states. In New York, a Long Island grand jury said this week that the Diocese of Rockville Center had protected at least 58 abusive priests for decades. In some cases, church officials had tricked victims into believing the diocese was taking action, the Suffolk County Grand Jury said. But, the panel added, it could not issue indictments because of the state's five-year statute of limitations. The grand jury called for changes in the law.
The second major category of proposals would extend the deadline for alleged abuse victims to sue. Bills to accomplish that are being considered in Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington and Wisconsin.
The California Legislature last year passed a law suspending the statute of limitations for one year to let victims of long-ago abuse sue institutions that protected abusers. The law does not specifically mention the Catholic Church, but bishops statewide say they expect their dioceses to be the main targets of suits filed under the law.
Other legislation, being considered in at least 10 states, would add members of the clergy to those already required to report child abuse suspicions. Currently, most states require reporting from counselors, teachers and medical professionals. In some states, Catholic dioceses are supporting passage of mandatory reporting laws if the bills exempt information obtained in a formal confession.
Church officials and victims' advocates said the momentum of legislative action could increase the potential cost to the nation's dioceses. Catholic Church officials have estimated that the extended statute of limitations for civil suits could cost the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone millions of dollars, some of which the church said will be covered by insurance.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, said he expects the archdiocese to be named in several hundred new suits this year. Negotiations have been underway since the end of December to avoid trial and mediate most of those cases.
Most state legislative sessions have just begun, making the chances of legislation passing hard to assess, but the church is on the defensive after a year of headlines about abuse of children, advocates say.
"Clearly the fight is now in the various state legislatures around the country," said Beverly Hills attorney Raymond Boucher, who represents sexual abuse victims.
"As more and more states listen to the victims ... they realize
that either we reach out and provide a vehicle for the victims to find
justice or we risk the loss of lives and opportunity. That's really the
choice," he said.
By: Jean Guccione and William Lobdell
As many as 800 claims -- filed over the last year by adults who said they had been molested decades ago as children -- name Roman Catholic dioceses in California as defendants. An estimated 500 are aimed at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, shifting the focus of the church sex scandal in the United States from its origins in Boston to the West Coast.
"If Boston was the beginning and the cornerstone of the scandal, California is going to be the capstone of the crisis," said Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and national expert on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church who acts as a consultant to plaintiffs' attorneys.
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said that, although many of the claims are true, most allegations are so old that proving or disproving them is difficult.
"The overwhelming majority of claims against the archdiocese are several decades old, making them virtually impossible to verify," he said. "There are likely many suits that are exaggerated or just plain false. But, sadly, there are many in which the claimed abuse did occur. There were men who used their position as a priest to commit the most awful crimes against the innocent, the trusting and the faithful."
The civil cases took on more public significance this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that had permitted the retroactive criminal prosecution of decades-old child molestation cases.
The Catholic Church may be the institution hardest hit by the civil suits. But other organizations have been affected as well by the state law that lifted the statute of limitations for a year so victims of childhood sexual abuse could sue employers who failed to protect them from known molesters.
"The whole notion that the law was created for the Catholic Church -- while that may be true, it has much wider consequences," said Newport Beach attorney Mark Kelegian, who has filed two dozen cases against religious organizations and community groups, including the Boys Scouts of America.
Other lawsuits name a variety of defendants, including the Explorers, the Salvation Army and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Five men, for example, have accused two male teachers at Monterey Bay Academy, an Adventist boarding school in La Selva Beach, of giving them alcohol and marijuana when they were teenagers, then raping them, according to their lawyer Joseph P. Scully.
And three lawsuits allege that Deputy Chief David Kalish of the Los Angeles Police Department molested three teenage boys more than 20 years ago when they were Explorers. Kalish, who has denied the charges, has been on paid leave since March, when the allegations became public. No criminal charges will be filed.
The exact number of molestation suits filed in California's 58 trial courts could not be tallied, because state lawmakers required that the identities of defendants remain secret until judges determined that the accusations appeared legitimate. Some were still being filed late New Year's Eve afternoon to meet the statutory deadline.
"I am shocked with the number of victims who have come forward," said Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg, who represents 139 people who have accused Catholic priests of sexual misconduct.
David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the number of legal claims is "a painful reminder that literally thousands of California kids have suffered severely and, for the most part, needlessly" because church leaders knew of or suspected the abuse but did nothing to stop it.
The California cases also should "once and for all disabuse people of the notion that this was a tiny percentage of priests who molested children or that the problem was confined to a handful of dioceses" back East, he said.
Raymond P. Boucher, who acts as court-appointed liaison for the Southland cases, estimated that as many as 500 people have sued the L.A. Archdiocese, with as many as 150 more suing the three other Southern California dioceses -- Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino.
An additional 150 claims were filed in Northern California, many of them against the dioceses of San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and Santa Rosa, said Stockton attorney Laurence E. Drivon, a national leader in litigating childhood sexual abuse claims against the Catholic Church.
Considering all cases statewide, as many as 200 priests -- some of whom are now dead -- have been accused of abusing children in the last six decades.
Lawyers and leaders of victims groups predict that Los Angeles will surpass other U.S. dioceses in numbers of priests involved in the scandal and the amount of the settlements. In Boston, the archdiocese agreed to pay $85 million to 552 victims.
Multimillion-dollar settlements have also been reached in the dioceses of Chicago; Covington, Ky.; Louisville, Ky.; and Manchester, N.H. In California, the Diocese of San Bernardino and a religious order recently agreed to pay $4.2 million to two brothers who had been abused by their priest. And the Diocese of Oakland reached a $1-million settlement with a man who said he had been molested more than two decades ago.
A dozen or more victims' lawyers, plus counsel for the church and its insurers, have spent the last year trying to come up with a plan to settle molestation claims against the Diocese of Orange and the Los Angeles Archdiocese -- which covers Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties -- but they have yet to produce an agreement.
Speaking for the archdiocese, Tamberg said most allegations predate Roger M. Mahony's 1985 appointment as archbishop and added that Mahony instituted tougher policies on sexual abuse.
The spokesman also said the church hoped to reach a settlement. "Both Cardinal Mahony and the archdiocese desire that legitimate victims of sexual abuse within the church be fairly compensated for their suffering when the church was at fault," he said.
The national sex scandal was ignited two years ago when the Boston Globe won a legal battle to gain access to what would turn out to be 30,000 pages of documents from the Archdiocese of Boston. The records, collected in a series of civil suits, showed that church officials had known about predatory priests for decades and had gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up the crimes. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston ultimately resigned.
The L.A. Archdiocese is fighting the release of similar confidential documents in pending cases, both civil and criminal -- citing religious freedom, including the sanctity of the bishop-priest relationship.
With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, criminal charges against nearly two dozen Catholic clerics in Southern California -- including 10 priests and a seminarian in Los Angeles County -- were dropped. And criminal inquiries into alleged sexual abuse by at least a dozen more clergymen in the county were halted, prosecutors said.
After being shunned by church officials, many alleged victims turned to civil lawyers for help. One said that she didn't want to sue the Los Angeles Archdiocese but that the Supreme Court decision had "left me with no options" for justice.
"I've been silent for 29 years," said the 45-year-old resident of Seal Beach, adding that money wasn't a motivation because she and her husband are affluent.
Although the statute of limitations for criminal acts could not be retroactively revised, plaintiffs' lawyers said the same doctrine against ex post facto laws did not apply to civil cases like these. But lawyers for the L.A. Archdiocese are expected to test the constitutionality of the one-year extended statute of limitations if the cases aren't settled.
State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), co-author of the bill extending the statute, said he had anticipated such a challenge when he helped draft the legislation and was confident that the law could withstand appeal.
The law is a near duplicate of another state statute that reopened a one-year filing window for homeowners to sue insurers for property damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The constitutionality of that law has been upheld by state and federal appeals courts.
"I have always expected the Catholic Church to do everything in its power to avoid being held accountable for its actions," said Dunn, who as a trial lawyer litigated similar cases against the church.
The sexual abuse law was designed to reopen the courthouse doors to many alleged victims whose suits were thrown out of court in the 1990s after a series of appellate court rulings concluded that they had just one year after they turned 18 to sue the church, Dunn said.
Although state law permits victims to sue until they reach age 26, the courts have interpreted that statute to target only the actual perpetrators and not their employers, effectively shielding the Catholic Church and other entities, he said.
In the final weeks and days of 2003, law offices were swamped with calls from potential clients. Boucher said he got more than 20 calls Tuesday alone, just one day before the deadline expired, about filing new cases. His staff voted to postpone a holiday party and work through Tuesday night and all day Wednesday to make the deadline.
"We are going to find some way to preserve the statute of limitations" for new clients, he said. "I don't care what the cost is."
Original material copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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