Limitations on Sex Crime Punishment Need More Debate

By Betty DeRamus
The Detroit News
January 13, 2006

There's no time limit on how long victims of sexual assaults will agonize or ache.

And there's no telling how deep they'll burrow inside themselves or how much corked-up rage they're carrying around.

It's been more than 50 years since a stranger molested Sen. Shirley Johnson, R-Troy, on her way to school, but she has not forgotten the incident or shed all its scars.

It was in her heart when she introduced legislation in 2000 that eliminated the six-year statute of limitations for rape and other violent sexual assaults when DNA evidence is available. That legislation became law in 2001, the House passing it by 97-0 and the Senate by 35-0.

On Wednesday, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton revealed that he had been abused 60 years ago by a priest. The 75-year-old prelate didn't seem to have forgotten any details, including the fact that the unidentified priest would try to put his hands in "the back of your pants."

And like Shirley Johnson, Gumbleton brought up his never-before publicized abuse to make the case for legal changes.

Bishop backs extension

Gumbleton supports proposed legislation in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York that -- for one year only -- would extend the statute of limitations on civil suits involving sexual abuse.

This would make it possible for people to file suits about alleged incidents dating back 35 years.

According to Claudia Vercellotti, the Toledo director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, this one-year window of opportunity would allow "victims to publicly expose the predators who hurt them so that parents, neighbors and employers will know about potentially dangerous men."

" Anyone who ignored a sex crime, shielded a molester, destroyed a document or deceived a victim's family may also be exposed," Vercellotti added.

However, Msgr. Ricardo Bass, Cardinal Adam Maida's delegate for clergy matters, said in a statement that the statute of limitations on such cases " has served our society well in protecting the rights of everyone, especially after a long passage of time."

Statute has limits

The statute of limitations in Michigan on civil cases filed by anyone abused as a minor expires when the victim is 19.

It's hard to see how anyone can claim that the statute has served all segments of society.

That's especially true in cases where allegedly abusive priests were shielded from the eyes of the law and bounced from parish to parish for decades.

It remains to be seen whether the legislation Gumbleton now supports is the best way to compensate victims of sexual abuse or create strong cases against possible predators.

All the same, Gumbleton's story and the continuing push for reforms make the point that this issue remains alive.

Society must continue to search for ways to punish even elderly sexual predators, make peace with families that were deceived and show victims that, at last, someone does see and smell their pain.

Betty DeRamus' column runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Metro. Reach her at (313) 222-2296 or


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