Church to Fight New Law's Time Limit
Retroactive Clause Unfair, Officials Say
By Manya A. Brachear
July 27, 2004
The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago plans to argue in court Tuesday that the state's recently extended statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse allegations should not apply to suits filed before the law was changed.
The tactic has infuriated abuse survivors who feel the archdiocese has betrayed victims of sexual abuse by withdrawing its outspoken support of the law and invoking statutes of limitations to avoid liability.
"It just feels as though they're trying to use a legal technicality to dodge accountability and responsibility," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We think that bishops need to act as moral leaders, not as hardball defense lawyers."
Officials from the archdiocese and the Congregation of Christian Brothers, also named as a defendant in two lawsuits before the Cook County Circuit Court, said they still would support the law if it is applied fairly.
"We're only challenging the aspect of how it's administered," said Jim Dwyer, an archdiocese spokesman. "We're not in the habit of using statute of limitations. ... We could have on many cases we have already settled."
The legal argument is an effort to dismiss two separate civil suits that accuse Robert Brouillette, a former Christian Brother who served as a counselor at St. Laurence High School in Burbank, of repeatedly molesting two male teenagers.
St. Laurence also was named originally as a codefendant. The school has since settled with both accusers.
The measure, which Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law last July, gives accusers 10 years after turning 18 to file civil suits. The previous statute of limitations gave accusers two years. Both plaintiffs in the Brouillette cases had turned 20 before they sued. The law also gives accusers five years to file civil suits after they realize they were abused and the extent of the harm done--which may not occur until the victims are well into adulthood.
Legal experts say the question of applying the law retroactively is not clear cut. Although legislators pointed out that the law would apply to cases in litigation when the bill was passed, courts often do not favor retroactive action, said Bruce Boyer, director of the Loyola ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University Chicago's School of Law.
"There's clearly room for argument," he said. "I think there are certainly good arguments in defense of what the legislature has done here. But is it permissible?"
Jeanine Stevens, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the revised law gives her clients the right to go forward with both lawsuits--the first filed in July 2002 for alleged abuse between 1996 and 1998, and the second filed in January 2003 for alleged abuse between 1994 and 1996. Brouillette was convicted in 1999 on child pornography charges, for which he completed 4 years of probation in March. Stevens said that despite the religious order's supervision, Brouillette maintained contact with one of her clients during his probation. Despite pleas from the Will County state's attorney to incarcerate Brouillette for 6 months, a judge released him. Brouillette has since left the brotherhood, said Brother Daniel Casey, a spokesman for the religious order.
Officials from both the religious order and archdiocese insist that they continue to support the law's premise.
"We are not fighting the law itself," Casey said. "We think the law is a good law. We just want to be sure it is applied appropriately."
Dwyer said that if Brouillette had worked for the archdiocese, officials would try to reach a settlement with the alleged victims. However, the religious order is not under the authority of the archdiocese, he said, and for that reason the archdiocese has resorted to legal means to try to dismiss the case.
"We will take responsibility for the abuse that happens within our jurisdiction," he said. "To say we're responsible to what a religious brother does at a religious brothers' school is really unfair."
Stevens said the challenge is nothing more than a delay tactic "to buy time until the priest abuse scandal in their minds dies down," she said. "In my view, it's not going to."
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