Bishop Accountability
  Proposal Would Open a Window for Victims of Priests

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
February 21, 2004

If the Davenport Catholic Diocese and priests accused of sexually abusing altar boys had their wish, the 12 lawsuits hanging over their heads would vanish.

Attorneys for the diocese, the Rev. James Janssen and the Rev. Francis Bass believe they have a way to perform that sleight of hand. If they can persuade a judge that their clients are protected by civil statutes of limitation, they may get the lawsuits dismissed and never have to defend their clients.

Sort of a legal variation of the song fans chant to losers at football games, "Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye!"

Under Iowa law, lawsuits filed by adults seeking damages for sexual abuse suffered as minors must be filed within four years of the time the victim discovers the injury and the connection between the sexual abuse and damage done to their lives.

All of the lawsuits currently in the courts allege sexual misconduct by clergy that reportedly occurred decades ago.

Which lawsuits will go forward or which will be dismissed will be decided by Clinton County District Judge C.H. Pelton. Each plaintiff contends there is a reason he didn't sue earlier -mental illness, intimidation by diocese officials or lawyers representing the priests, or only recent recognition that the reason their lives are so miserable is the abuse.

Help may be on the way.

A proposed Iowa law could give all victims of child sexual abuse a one-time, one-year window of opportunity to seek justice in civil court unfettered by the statutes of limitation.

House Study Bill 601 was filed by Rep. Gene Maddox, R-Clive, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, at the request of House Speaker Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City. If passed, the measure would suspend the statutes of limitation for one year -July 1, 2004, to July 1, 2005 -to allow an adult victim of child sexual abuse to file a civil lawsuit for the recovery of damages. The measure has been assigned to a House judicial subcommittee, which is a sure sign that Maddox wants it "to move."

The bill mirrors a California law passed in 2002. The result was a flood of lawsuits in that state against Roman Catholic Church officials. Victims have reached settlements worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone, 211 priests have been accused of molesting 519 boys and 137 girls over the past 73 years. An additional 33 priests were accused but not named because the allegations were too recent or contained insufficient information to investigate.

In Iowa, three of the state's four Catholic dioceses have reported child sexual abuse statistics.

Only the Des Moines diocese has named priests and took steps to remove them from the priesthood. None of Iowa's bishops have named deceased priests who were alleged to have molested children.

So, except for priests named in lawsuits we know about in the Sioux City and Davenport dioceses, a majority of Iowa Catholics have no way of knowing the names of other priests who abused children, escaped criminal prosecution, or were moved from parish to parish.

This week, Michael McCarthy, a Davenport attorney representing Bass, filed a motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed by an anonymous plaintiff labeled John Doe III. Because Doe III wrote to Bishop William E. Franklin on July 25, 1998, reporting that Bass abused him in the 1960s, McCarthy contends his opportunity for suing the priest has expired.

Bass and the diocese have always denied the allegations. Yet, the lawsuits keep coming. It would be a shame if credible cases are thrown out on a technicality instead of being judged on merit.

The Legislature can open an opportunity for justice to be done.

"These types of bills require careful balancing," said Rep. George Eichhorn, R-Stratford, chairman of the judiciary subcommittee studying the bill. "Clearly we have the injured victims' concerns, then we have the interests of justice and then we have the concerns of the accused. The reason and the extent of the problem requiring this exception is an important factor in reviewing the bill."

Sara Eide, lobbyist for the Iowa Catholic Conference, has been working with diocesan attorneys studying the bill.

"The Iowa Catholic Conference has serious concerns about HSB 601," Eide said. "This bill seeks to nullify a law that is intended to ensure justice for all parties. Our concerns would be in dealing with claims where perpetrators are dead, memories have faded, witnesses are gone or evidence is diminished. This is why we have statutes of limitation in the first place -to avoid these scenarios.

"Our church has been very proactive in reaching out to victims and offering them assistance. . . . The Iowa Catholic Conference looks forward to any opportunity to work with the Legislature on efforts to protect our children through prevention and education.

"We certainly do not condone any of the wrongdoing; however, the end result of HSB 601 could be the bankruptcy of our nonprofit organizations that are serving our children today -our schools and our many charities."

At least one of Eichhorn's subcommittee feels strongly about the issue.

Rep. Kurt Swaim, D-Bloomfield, said adult victims were dealing with issues other than pursuing their legal remedies as they struggled with coming to terms with the horrors they experienced as children.

"It is important they have a chance to recover from their injuries," Swaim said. "It would be a terrible injustice to attempt to close this sad chapter in church history without allowing these people a meaningful remedy for the violations of the sacred trust they have suffered."


[Photo caption: Rep. Kurt Swaim, D-Bloomfield]


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