Triple Whammy against Sex Abuse

By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News [Colorado]
January 31, 2006,2777,DRMN_23906_4428702,00.html

Three bills before the legislature would put churches and nonprofits embroiled in sex-abuse cases on an even bigger hook when it comes to damages and the statute of limitations.

A bill introduced Friday by Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Coal Creek Canyon, would allow sex-abuse lawsuits even against a dead person.

"The whole premise behind (these bills) would allow people to bring up charges even on an old incident," said Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver, who co-sponsored a house bill with Rep. Rosemary Marshall, D-Denver.

The legislation comes at a time of heightened concern about clergy abuse. The Catholic Church in Colorado is facing more than two dozen lawsuits alleging that church officials knew of sexual-abuse allegations against priests but failed to protect children.

But none of the bills would impact sex-abuse complaints against employees of public schools or government entities - which is unfair, the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver argued on its Web site Monday.

A joint statement Monday by Archbishop Charles Chaput and Colorado's other bishops, Michael Sheridan, of Colorado Springs, and Arthur Tafoya, of Pueblo, urges Catholics to demand an end to what they call the unequal treatment of sex-abuse cases.

"On a matter as ugly and grave as the sexual abuse of minors," the statement says, "exactly the same civil and criminal penalties, financial damages, time frames for litigation and statutes of limitations should apply against both public and private institutions and their agents. That's fair, that's just, and it serves the ultimate safety of all our young people."

Public entities are protected by sovereign immunity, which says that civil actions must be filed within 180 days of when the injury is discovered, and caps damage awards at $150,000, said Rohn K. Robbins, an attorney who practices in the Vail Valley and has written and spoken on the subject.

By contrast, under terms of Fitz-Gerald's bill, nonprofits and churches would be vulnerable to a two-year window in which plaintiffs could revive old cases that otherwise would be beyond the statute of limitations.

Fitz-Gerald's bill also permits a civil action "against a defendant who is deceased or incapacitated." She said it's meant to allow suits against entities that should be held responsible for actions of the accused.

Fitz-Gerald said she wasn't targeting Catholics but added that "the incidents brought to light," have been an impetus in bringing the bills.

"The Father White victims have no way to get a sense of justice," she said, referring to a former Denver priest accused of multiple allegations. "Now it's an issue in Colorado . . . there's a need to have a cleansing of what may have gone on in the past, to let people have their day in court."

The other two bills also remove the limitation periods for bringing both civil and criminal cases involving a sexual offense against a child. One bill, sponsored by Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, would remove damage limitations in certain cases.

"This legislation is clearly targeting one group," said Tim Dore, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm.

Dore said that the church "is definitely concerned" about the implications of the bills.

"For any nonprofit, you could have a case going back, in theory, to 1930; I don't think there's a limit how far back they could go."

Green, who sponsored one of the bills, said Monday that she hadn't really thought about changing the law to include public entities, and that it was too late to consider it in light of the present bill.

Sandoval said that philosophically she might consider including public entities.

"I think the law should apply to everybody," she said, "but my guess is there would be probably a lot of opposition by the CEA (Colorado Education Association). I would want to work with the teachers union to get their (input.)"

Marshall could not be reached for comment.

According to Robbins, the legislature would have to change state law to remove sovereign immunity exceptions. That couldn't be done as an amendment to a bill.


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