Midlands Voices: All victims of sexual abuse deserve chance at justice

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

March 6, 2022

By Mark Heffron

All victims of child sexual abuse deserve the chance to seek justice. Who could disagree? Two high-profile Nebraska public officials, that’s who.

On Feb. 9, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson sent a representative to a Judiciary Committee hearing to publicly testify against LB 1200. That legislation would allow victims of child sexual abuse to sue public institutions — like public schools and juvenile detention facilities — for their careless supervision of employees who sexually abuse children.

This is the same attorney general who, a mere five months ago, publicly advocated expanding the right to sue non-governmental organizations for the exact same conduct. This did not go unnoticed by several senators on the Judiciary Committee, who rightly called out the attorney general’s brazen double-standard.

In November, Attorney General Peterson widely publicized his investigative report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Nebraska. At the press conference releasing the report, the results of which he grossly misrepresented, he pleaded for expanding the opportunity to sue the Catholic Church by extending the statute of limitations against private entities.

Expressly following up on the AG’s report, Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha introduced a bill to make private institutions — and only private institutions — indefinitely liable for claims related to sexual abuse. During the public hearing on his bill, Pahls stated the attorney general supported his legislation.

Pahls’ legislation targets the Catholic Church. While dissembling that is does not, Pahls’ words and actions at the hearing proved otherwise. He handed out the AG’s misleading report against the Catholic Church and concluded the hearing in a rant about the church’s historical sex abuse scandal. The Catholic sex abuse scandal caused great pain and injustice to children, parents and families. It rocked the faithful clergy and the Catholic community. And it was the trigger for sweeping changes that have nearly eliminated instances of Catholic sexual abuse in the last two decades.

While Pahls’ legislation hounds private entities, it specifically protects public institutions from being sued when they do the exact same thing, facilitate child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse is dishearteningly widespread across all institutions dealing with a large number of children. Child sexual abuse in public institutions — like public schools, foster care and juvenile detention centers — is ongoing and pervasive. As reported at the hearing, a leading expert on educator sexual abuse stated that “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely 100 times the abuse by priests.”

Unlike Pahls’ and Peterson’s discriminatory efforts, Sen. Steve Halloran’s LB 1200 would ensure that victims of child sexual abuse in public institutions have the same legal rights and remedies to sue as victims in private institutions.

By publicly opposing LB 1200, Peterson exposed his willingness to treat victims who suffer at the hands of public institutions as second-class victims. The deliberate shielding of public institutions from liability in Pahls’ bill treats child victims in the same appalling manner.

These actions by Nebraska’s top law enforcement officer and by a state senator can only be described as brazen discrimination. And their primary goal does not appear to be protecting children — when they purposefully shield major perpetrators in public institutions. Such an injustice cannot go unaccounted for.

Any Nebraska senator who opposes Halloran’s LB 1200 — especially if they support Pahls’ LB833 — would be in the same boat with Peterson and Pahls. Nebraska deserves better. All victims of sexual abuse deserve the chance to seek justice.