Sexual Abuse Law in Illinois Faces Battle

By Kevin McDermott
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [Springfield IL]
October 30, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Battle lines are being drawn in court over Illinois' new law that makes it easier to sue for child sexual abuse, with two Catholic groups claiming the law's statute-of-limitations rules are unconstitutionally vague.

The revamped law, which went into effect in July, allows people who believe they were abused as children to file suit for up to a decade after turning 18 - or up to five years after "the date the person abused discovers . . . that the act of childhood sexual abuse occurred and that the injury was caused by (the abuse)."

Defense lawyers in pending lawsuits against Catholic entities in Springfield, Ill., and Chicago - including a sexual abuse suit against the St. Louis estate of a now-deceased priest - say the law is unconstitutionally vague and should be overturned.

Advocates for the prevention of sexual abuse point out that recovering memories of abuse often takes years, and it is sometimes years more before victims understand how the abuse has injured them. If the law doesn't stand up in court, they say, it could make it difficult for future child-abuse victims to get justice.

"The implications are huge," said Lyn Schollett of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "We would revert to a law that doesn't recognize the reality that adult survivors of child sexual abuse face. Victims need time to heal before they can go to court."

The coalition and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests plan to file "friend of the court" briefs in the cases to defend the new law, representatives for the groups said at a news conference Thursday in Springfield.

"The (Illinois) Legislature spoke loudly and clearly this summer," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP's national director, "and now this new law is in danger in the courts."

One plaintiff alleges that the Rev. Alvin Campbell sexually abused him while he was training to be an altar boy in the Springfield area in the early 1980s, and that officials of the Springfield Diocese ignored warnings that Campbell was dangerous.

After serving a prison term for sexual misconduct, Campbell retired to St. Louis, where he died last year. The suit has continued against Campbell's estate.

The plaintiff, Matthew McCormick, filed suit in 1999 in Springfield after concluding that his depression and thoughts of suicide were the result of the alleged abuse he had suffered as a child. The language of the law specifies that the five-year statute of limitations doesn't start ticking until the victim both remembers the abuse and determines that the injury was caused by the abuse.

The wording is part of the basis of the diocese's constitutional challenge against the law. In court documents, the diocese's attorneys allege the law is "unconstitutionally vague" and "a denial of due process" for the defendant.

A diocesan spokeswoman and an attorney for the diocese both declined to comment on the suit Thursday.

Another suit, against St. Laurence High School, a Catholic school in Chicago, alleges sexual abuse and official failure to stop it. Defendants in that case also are challenging the Illinois law on constitutional grounds.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.