|Standard for Sex-Abuse Suits under Fire
Legislation Could Widen Time Limits for Some Abuse Lawsuits, a Change the Catholic Church Opposes
By Eric Gorski
February 10, 2006
Democratic lawmakers, victims' advocate groups, lawyers and the Roman Catholic Church are squaring off in a high-stakes battle over whether it should be easier for victims of child sexual abuse to sue churches and private institutions in Colorado.
The push to loosen or drop statutes of limitations for victims seeking justice decades later is a new front in the national Catholic clergy sexual-abuse crisis.
Four years after the scandal erupted, legislators in a handful of states are considering such reforms - and meeting resistance from the church.
But the church's argument in Colorado appears to be a novel one: that it's unfair to hold churches and private nonprofits to a different standard than public schools, which under governmental immunity are difficult to sue under state law.
"We are arguing that everyone should be held to a higher standard," said Tim Dore, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the state's three dioceses. "Child abuse is child abuse. It should be treated the same, be it in a private or public institution. This is a societal issue."
Supporters of three statute-of-limitations bills in the legislature call that a red herring - an attempt to steer attention away from the church's problems and muddy a debate over justice for the victims.
"It's unfortunate if what they're saying is that, 'Other people have gotten away with it, why aren't you going after them?"' said state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, sponsor of a bill that would open a two-year window for lawsuits against private entities, no matter how old the incidents.
The church's strong public statements on the legislation are in keeping with Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput's belief that Catholics are called to carry their faith into the public square.
In a letter read from pulpits last weekend, Chaput called the legislation "unfair, unequal and prejudicial" - and anti-Catholic.
Chaput declined an interview request this week.
Under Colorado law, victims of child abuse in public schools must file notice to sue within 180 days of an incident, and damages are capped at $150,000. Generally, victims have until they turn 24 to sue churches and private groups, and caps on damages don't exist in most cases.
Fitz-Gerald, who is Catholic, said that she was motivated by allegations against Colorado Catholic clergy, but her bill targets no one group. The legislation would apply to private child-care centers, churches and groups such as the Boy Scouts.
"If the Catholic Church was so concerned about making changes in current laws, why haven't they been lobbying for us to change it before this?" said House Majority Leader Alice Madden, D-Boulder, a co-sponsor of Fitz-Gerald's bill. "I will not coddle pedophiles, no matter who they work for."
So far, no other church or private organization has publicly opposed the legislation.
Colorado law spells out the reasons for sovereign immunity: that public bodies provide essential public functions that could be disrupted or made too expensive for the taxpayer if exposed to unlimited liability. The doctrine does not shield public employees in cases of "willful and wanton conduct."
"We understand governmental immunity," lobbyist Dore said. "But the heart of the issue is for a child who is abused in a public or a private institution: is that abuse any less or different?"
Other factors should be taken into consideration, said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a key player in pushing states to change their laws.
Any citizen can make a public records request to seek information on cases of abuse in public schools, she said.
But because the church has not been forthcoming with details about accused priests, no one in Colorado knew about the scope of the problem until victims came forward last summer, she said. Since then, more than two dozen lawsuits have been filed accusing the archdiocese of protecting and reassigning priests known to be offenders.
"In the public sector, there are checks and balances," Blaine said. "The schools operate in a democracy. The bishops act like a monarchy. They are completely accountable to no one."
In testimony last week on one bill, the church tried to bolster its argument that sexual abuse and misconduct in public schools is a more serious problem than it is in churches.
One of the witnesses was Patrick Chappell, a Holy Family High School junior who was a public school student when he was molested. He wasn't molested in school; he was victimized in Estes Park by his employer, a well-known former member of the local school board, who later was convicted.
"I don't think it's a good idea to change our legal system," Chappell said in an interview. "I don't think true healing comes from chasing around the person who molested you 30 years ago."
A 2004 federal study on sexual abuse in public schools found that 6.7 percent of students report being physically abused by an educator, said Charol Shakeshaft, a Hofstra University professor who testified for the church last week.
At the same time, Shakeshaft said in an interview, it's impossible to say whether abuse is more rampant in one setting than another because so little reliable data exist from schools, churches and youth organizations.
She said she supports lifting barriers to suing private and public entities because research shows that victims need years to find the strength to go public.
Experts say children are most frequently abused at home.
Public schools are not immune to lawsuits, however, said Tom Roberts, a lawyer representing plaintiffs suing the archdiocese. Schools can be sued under the federal Civil Rights Act if a known offender was moved from school to school, Roberts said.
"It's not like there is a cocoon around school districts that you can't recover damages under any circumstances," said Lauren Kingsbery, legal counsel for the Colorado Association of School Boards.
But Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs lawyer working with the Catholic Conference, countered that making a civil rights case would be a stretch legally, especially with old cases.
"We have a very large industry that is all geared up to make hundreds of millions of dollars suing entities for failing to protect children," he said. "If there was that pool of potential plaintiffs, where are the lawsuits?"
Staff writer Eric Gorski can be reached at 303-820-1698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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