Is It Fair to Roll Back Statutes of Limitations on Sex-Abuse Cases?

By Mary DeTurris Poust
Catholic Online [United States]
February 10, 2006


HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) -- Since the sexual-abuse crisis in the church came to a head in 2002, Catholics have been cowering in the corner, so overcome with media-induced guilt and shame that they are afraid to say anything that might imply that they aren't horrified by the abuse or saddened for its victims.

Now, however, as statute-of-limitations legislation springs up across the country like weeds after a spring rain, some church officials are saying that it's time for Catholics to get indignant - maybe even angry – that the legislation is targeting Catholics and Catholics alone despite the fact that many other organizations and institutions have been beset by the same or even more despicable abuse issues.

The statute of limitations varies from state to state, but one thing is the same: The statute was created not by the church but by society to protect people from litigation years or even decades after an alleged offense was committed.

Memories fade with time, witnesses die, technology and standards change in ways that allow us to know things now that we didn't know a half-century ago, and monetary awards that would have been based on the standards of the time when the alleged crimes were committed skyrocket into a stratosphere beyond what any insurance policy or savings account could cover.

Think about it this way: Should someone today be allowed to sue his doctor for not knowing 40 years ago how to treat cancer more aggressively, and should he be compensated by today's economic standards and not those of 40 years ago, and should he be able to get that money from, say, the doctors currently in practice and the American Medical Association, because the original doctor is dead and because the AMA should have known better?

Apply it equally

"The Catholic Church didn't write the statute of limitations. They are there for good reasons," said Francis Maier, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver. "On the issue of sexual abuse, everybody agrees that that's an extremely significant issue, and it may or may not be so significant that a revision in the statute of limitations is called for. However, if it is called for, what Catholics would argue is, fine but apply it equally to all offending communities and all offenders. That's not what is happening."

Three other church officials were interviewed for this story but did not want to be quoted, even anonymously, for fear that any comment could bring unwanted attention that might hinder their efforts to stop statute-of-limitations legislation in their states or dioceses.

In 2003, the state of California opened a one-year window, lifting the statute of limitations and allowing anyone with a sexual abuse claim to come forward. Some 800 lawsuits, which could eventually cost the church more than $1 billion, were filed. Maier said that the California law was crafted so that it "had the effect of targeting primarily Catholic institutions" while dodging possible constitutional challenges. Other states have proposed similar legislation.

"That's extremely troubling to Catholics because the intent of that law is clearly prejudicial," he said. "If the issue is sexual abuse of minors, the Catholic Church by no means has a monopoly on that. There are lots of other institutions that are as bad or worse in terms of their records of supervision of pedophiles, and they're not getting the same civil attention. We find that to be fundamentally prejudicial and unfair," Maier told Our Sunday Visitor.

"Unique standards are being applied to judging the behavior of Catholic leadership that are not being applied to the government, medicine or law. The effect is a kind of legal bigotry," he said.

Unfair practices

A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that between 6 percent and 10 percent of public-school students are sexually abused or harassed by teachers or school employees. Hofstra University Prof. Charol Shakeshaft, who prepared the report, said at the time that her findings led her to believe that "the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests."

And yet, public schools are exempt from any efforts to lift the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse. Not only that, but in many states, victims of public-school sexual abuse have as little as 180 days to report the abuse, and those who do come forward in time are severely limited in the amount they are able to seek in damages.

Maier, who has a 15-year-old son with Down syndrome, said that his child, who attends public school, is in a group that is 4 to 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted. If that ever were to occur, Maier would be unable to seek the same kind of restitution that would be available if the same offense were to occur in a Catholic setting.

"Catholics are committed to providing real healing and real justice for victims. We are absolutely on board with that because most Catholics are parents, and we don't want it happening to our kids. We want perpetrators to be punished, but this isn't justice. This is robbery and bigotry operating under the smoke screen of pious outrage at a so-called 'culture of secrecy,' " he said. "If there's so much pious outrage out there, how come it isn't also directed at places like public schools? The answer is because of the unions and government interest in not litigating itself. Justice is kind of a second cousin to this whole process now."

Nature justice

L. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado-based attorney who has worked on sexual-abuse cases in several states, told Our Sunday Visitor that the statute of limitations "recognizes that those with claims have duties too" and said that there is a "natural justice" in the statute of limitations that protects defendants against evidence that has gone stale over time and protects individuals from having to pay for something they did not have anything to do with in the first place.

Nussbaum explained that if Bishop A retires and is succeeded by bishops B, C and D, it is unfair to then ask Bishop D and his flock in 2006 to compensate for the errors made by Bishop A. "Damages are being visiting upon a church wholly uninvolved," he said.

He also talked about the fact that bishops in the past received advice from a number of sources, including mental-health professionals, regarding sexual abuse and how to deal with those with inclinations toward it. "The knowledge that they have about that is much more superior today and much less hopeful today than it was in 1960," Nussbaum told Our Sunday Visitor. "There is an innate unfairness in evaluating old conditions by new standards."

Limited defense

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit made headlines last month when he came out in favor of legislation that would lift the statute of limitations. He said that he supported the move in part because he had been inappropriately touched by a priest when he was a high school seminarian and understands what victims go through.

Although his statement was applauded by victim's rights groups and newspaper editorials, Bishop Gumbleton's refusal to name his now-dead accuser because the man would not be able to defend himself feeds right into his opponents' contentions that lifting the statute is patently unfair to those who are accused.

"Over time, it becomes much more difficult for witnesses to recall what they need to remember in order to testify, evidence ages and becomes useless, people die. It becomes very difficult as time goes by to do what the law is intended to do, which is to serve justice," said Denver's Maier, who called on Catholics to wake up to what is happening in their states and their church.

"People should be angry at sexual abuse no matter where they find it, and priests who have committed sexual abuse and people in authority who have tolerated in knowingly deserve to be punished, but we are well beyond the discovery stage on that," he said.

"What's happening now is that those issues are being hijacked to drive an agenda against the church that is much larger than that," Maier added. "There is a systematic juggernaut against the Catholic Church across the country that Catholics need to wake up about and get really angry," he said.

"Generations of Catholics who built the infrastructure of the Catholic Church in the United States," he said, "are getting robbed because those resources are being stolen by attorneys who see a huge opportunity for revenue enhancement, and the way they get away with it is by convincing Catholics that they're guilty."


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