Midlands Voices: Nebraska’s civil recovery laws must fit the depravity of child sex abuse

Omaha World-Herald (omaha.com) [Omaha NE]

December 30, 2021

By Senator Rich Pahls

Nebraska Attorney General Douglas J. Peterson did our state a service Nov. 4 when he released his detailed report on child abuse committed by Catholic Church officials in the Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island Dioceses.

I doubt that few people — including good, faithful Catholic Nebraskans — don’t hang their heads in sorrow when reviewing the details: credible allegations of sexual abuse and/or misconduct against 51 priests, four deacons and two teachers by a total of 258 victims dating back to Jan. 1, 1978.

Our first human reaction is to cry out “Why?” Which is usually followed by thoughts of, “How are we going to get even?” Then we sober up, realize that revenge accomplishes nothing, but doing nothing demonstrates nearly a tacit approval of serious criminal behavior.

That is why I’m taking some well-thought-out next steps when the legislative session begins in January to give Nebraskans the means to do something permanent and non-vengeful about theses outrages.

I will introduce a bill focused on recovery of civil damages. Here are its highlights:

1. It will end the statute of limitations for civil cases of sexual assault of a child when a third party has enabled the perpetrator. We refer to it as the “Third-Party Civil Bill.”

2. It will change the existing law, which prevents civil lawsuits from being filed 12 years past the 21st birthday of Nebraska child victims of sexual assault, ostensibly, age 33. This change will enable victims to recover damages from churches, schools and other institutions, regardless of how long it takes them to come to terms with their own abuse and speak out.

Note: Most victims are not looking for windfall payments from the institutions. They want justice for themselves as well as from their abusers. By making institutions always liable for their actions when they abuse children, the bill will do just that.

We also are working on an additional bill to create a two-year window during which law enforcement can “look back” at criminal cases of child sexual assault for which the statute of limitations has already run. There would also be a “look-back” provision for civil damage cases, as well.

The Third-Party Civil Bill is nearing final form and we have submitted drafts to the attorney general’s office and other subject matter experts for review. Here is what I hope the results of passage will be:

1. To demonstrate that the surest route to permanent reform is repealing the statute of limitations.

2. It’s undeniable victims of child abuse often wait for decades into adulthood to report these crimes. The bill will enable victims to recover civil damages from offenders no matter when they get over their own denials, embarrassment or other natural human impediments.

3. Church authorities should never again be inclined to hide offenders via continuous transfers or shipping offenders out of state for “treatment.” And I am calling on them here to name all perpetrators, if any were not disclosed in the attorney general’s report.

4. Passage of this bill will have financial impact on religious institutions and their insurance companies. So be it. I have already notified both groups this bill is coming.

In my view, the greatest sin in this entire scandal is the organized, high-level policy of hiding and covering for the offenders.

Likewise, I believe that revenge is sinful. But providing victims an easier path to civil justice is sound policy, and that is what I intend to do. I believe a large portion of Nebraska’s good, Catholic clergy support me on this.

Legislatively speaking, these bills are complicated, and the look-back provisions might require more than one session to accomplish. We’re expecting the attorney general’s decision soon on whether that office will support the Third-Party Civil Bill. If so, and we get that done in 2022, it will be a huge first step toward making victims whole again.

Then we’ll need passage of the criminal and civil look-back windows, as they are the only means to reopen old cases. Those will require additional work to accomplish due to constitutionality concerns.

In summary, it’s time to bring Nebraska’s civil recovery laws in line with the depravity of these offenses. If you agree with the thrust of my bill, please let your own state senator, or the governor or the attorney general know. The easiest bills to pass are those that have solid public support.