Protect Kids by Opening Statute of Limitations

By Deb Price
The Detroit News [Michigan]
January 23, 2006

Their fathers sexually abused them. Their families covered it up, warned them not to tell and made them feel dirty, even to blame for what had happened.

As the four middle-aged women told state Rep. Paul Condino, D-Southfield, well into adulthood they continued to feel horrible about themselves and angry that their abusers had never been punished.

"I'm a fairly strong guy, and I had tears in my eyes," Condino recalls of the breakfast meeting a year ago that prompted him to introduce legislation to change Michigan's statute of limitations on civil lawsuits: Currently, abuse victims must sue by age 19. Condino would allow those of any age to sue during a two-year "window" after the bill's passage. After that, victims could sue until age 38.

"I don't know how anyone could listen to those kinds of stories and think that the current system in working," the lawmaker says.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church doesn't want people to listen to those kinds of stories, some of which would focus yet more attention on abuse by priests. The primary opposition to Condino's much-needed legislative remedy is coming from the Catholic Church. A statement by the Archdiocese of Detroit claims that the current limits on suits by abuse victims have "served our society well in protecting the rights of everyone."

"The Catholic Church's primary concern appears to be how much it might cost them and what further bad PR they'd get, rather than the good that could come for the victims who would finally get a chance to tell what happened to them and have their community say, 'That was wrong,' " says Condino, who was raised Catholic.

So far, only California has opened a child-abuse lawsuit "window" to help victims mend emotionally and to provide some justice even after criminal prosecution is no longer possible. Many victims are in their 30s before they can face what they suffered as kids.

Beyond Michigan, "window" bills are pending in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

These proposals got a huge boost on Jan. 11 by Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's courageous revelation that as a teen he was molested by a Catholic priest.

"It might seem easier to keep the evils hidden," Gumbleton said in a statement to the Ohio House Judiciary Committee, "to move on and trust that the future will be better. But I am convinced that a settlement of every case by our court system is the only way to protect children and to heal the brokenness within the church."

"Window" bills are an important first step toward protecting future generations. Law professor Marci Hamilton of Yeshiva University, an expert on the clergy sex abuse scandal, rightly urges states to abolish statute of limitations for prosecution of child abuse, as has been done by Maine, Alaska and the federal government.

Working with victims' groups, Hamilton has also drafted the Violence Against Children Act, which -- if passed by Congress -- would link certain federal funds to the abolition of state statutes of limitations on prosecuting sex crimes against children and to opening civil suit "windows" for victims.

One of the most powerful parts of this proposed federal legislation is that it would take away the tax-exempt status of any group that fails to report child abuse or covers it up.

Child abusers are rarely rehabilitated. They depend on the silence of powerless children and the indifference of adults. We can change that by demanding that lawmakers enact commonsense legal reforms to protect kids.

You can reach Deb Price at (202) 662-8736 or


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