Victims Want Limitations Lifted on Abuse Lawsuits

By Amy F. Bailey
The Associated Press, carried in MLive [Lansing MI]
August 24, 2003

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Last year's extensive coverage of sexual abuse and coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston triggered painful memories for Mark Powell.

Powell, 43, said he was sexually abused as a teenager in 1977 at a monastery in Davenport, Iowa, and again as a young man studying to be a priest in 1981 in Rome.

Now Powell, chief of staff for state Rep. Steve Ehardt, is working on legislation that would get rid of Michigan's statute of limitations on civil lawsuits in cases where children are sexually abused.

"It wasn't repressed, I just didn't want to think about it," the Grand Ledge resident said of his memories of the abuse. "Then the light bulb went off and I thought, `I'm in a position to ask Steve for help."'

Ehardt, a Republican from the Sanilac County lakeside community of Lexington, is planning to introduce four bills next month that would allow victims of sexual abuse to file a civil lawsuit to recover damages years after they were abused. State law now bans such lawsuits once victims turn 20.

Other bills in the package would remove time limits for filing criminal charges in cases involving sexual conduct with a minor.

Paul Long, vice president of public policy for the Michigan Catholic Conference in Lansing, said he can't comment on the bills until he sees a draft.

Supporters of the legislation, including the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said Michigan's current law doesn't give victims enough time to come to grips with their abuse.

Only a small number of victims come forward in the first 10 years after the abuse, according to SNAP, which was founded in 1990 in Chicago and now has more than 4,600 members.

Colleen Ptak, of Swartz Creek, said she didn't remember until seven years ago that she was sexually abused between the ages of 12 and 15 by a priest from her sister's high school in Buffalo, N.Y.

"For those that have been abused, it takes a long time," said Ptak, now 45. "What Representative Ehardt is doing is helping victims ... be able to heal. You can't put a clock on this thing."

Ptak said she filed a lawsuit in Illinois against the priest and the Diocese of Buffalo for a sexual assault she said happened in Chicago during a high school trip when she was a freshman.

Ptak's lawsuit was dismissed. The Diocese of Buffalo wouldn't comment on Ptak's case because of its confidentiality policy.

Very few civil lawsuits involving sexual abuse have been filed in Michigan against Catholic clergy because of the state's strict statute of limitations, Jeff Anderson said. The attorney from St. Paul, Minn., has filed hundreds of abuse lawsuits against Catholic clergy across the country.

In Michigan, at least 33 Catholic priests have been removed, suspended or have left their duties amid sexual abuse or misconduct allegations since Jan. 1, 2002. At least 20 of the cases involved a minor.

SNAP executive director David Clohessy said he doesn't expect Ehardt's legislation to open the floodgates for lawsuits because it's hard for victims to talk about their abuse.

"The real concern ought not to be theoretical workload for courts but actual danger to kids," he said.

Jon Schoonmaker, of Adrian, is waiting to see if an Ohio judge dismisses his lawsuit against the Diocese of Toledo and the priest he said molested him as a teenager when he was considering becoming a priest.

After a brief stint at a seminary in Indiana, the then-19-year-old Schoonmaker returned to Toledo in 1985 and sought guidance from the priest who had molested him. Schoonmaker said he was again victimized by the priest when the man sexually assaulted him during an overnight stay.

The Diocese of Toledo asked for the case to be dismissed because it said Schoonmaker filed the lawsuit after Ohio's seven-year statute of limitations ran out. The diocese wouldn't comment on Schoonmaker's case.

"I don't think the church is capable of holding itself accountable," said Schoonmaker, 36. "In a court, perhaps there's a better opportunity for justice and accountability. It's important for the truth to be revealed."

Powell, who recently began therapy to deal with his abuse, said he's close to filing a lawsuit against the Diocese of Davenport for his abuse. The diocese would not comment on Powell's case.

Supporters of the Michigan legislation said it doesn't violate a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated California's 1994 law extending the statute of limitations on decades-old child molestation cases. They said the high court's decision did not address civil cases.

Another piece of the four-bill package would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for second-, third- and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. The law now says that charges can't be brought once 10 years has passed since the incident or the victim turns 21, whichever is later.

State lawmakers in 2001 eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. That crime includes rape.

Another bill in the package would increase the penalties for offenders who prevent victims from coming forward. Currently, the penalty for obstruction of justice is a maximum two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

The legislation would increase the penalty to a maximum 15 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

There will be a number of public meetings to discuss the bills before they are formally introduced on Sept. 23, when the state House returns to Lansing for its fall session.

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