Church Sways Sex-Abuse Bills
Dems to Include Public Schools in Legislation Making It Easier for Victims to Sue
By Eric Gorski email@example.com
Denver Post [Colorado]
February 12, 2006
Facing intense lobbying pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, Democratic lawmakers said Saturday they are crafting legislation that would make it easier to sue not only churches and private entities but also public schools when adequate steps are not taken against child molesters.
State Rep. Terrance Carroll, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and House Majority Leader Alice Madden, D-Boulder, say House members are putting together legislation that would create a new exception to the state's governmental immunity law, which puts up barriers to suing schools and other public bodies.
Madden said the legislation would crack a hole in the immunity shield to make it easier to sue public schools that keep known child molesters employed, move them from school to school or protect them in other ways.
Said Carroll, D-Denver: "If we are concerned about child abuse and if there is a school district that has protected a child abuser, we need to hold them accountable."
The proposal comes after considerable controversy surrounding three Democrat-sponsored bills introduced this session that would loosen or do away with statutes of limitations in child sexual-abuse cases.
One Senate bill, scheduled for a committee hearing Monday, would open a two-year window allowing child sex-abuse lawsuits to be filed no matter how old the incidents - including suits against institutions where alleged perpetrators worked.
The state's Roman Catholic hierarchy has protested vigorously, arguing that public schools are not held to the same standards as private entities in civil court because of the state governmental immunity law.
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has called the legislation unfair, unequal, prejudicial and anti-Catholic.
Exposing state to liability
As part of its campaign, the archdiocese has introduced records it obtained under open- records laws that contain sexual-misconduct allegations leading to public schoolteachers' licenses being revoked or denied.
Carroll said an amendment to one of the existing bills is not possible - lawmakers cannot expand the scope of a bill beyond its title. Carroll said, however, that any change in immunity protections for schools must be narrow, otherwise the state slides down a slippery slope.
"There's always a concern when you start exposing the state to liability for more lawsuits," he said. "That's the biggest concern: to make sure we do it in a very conscientious and narrow way so we don't expose our state and public schools to huge liabilities."
Tim Dore, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's three dioceses, welcomed the development but said he would need to see the actual bill before passing judgment.
"I think we're moving in a positive way," Dore said. "Are we at where we want to be yet? No."
The church has pointed out that a victim wanting to sue a public school must file a notice of intent within 180 days of the incident under state law, and damages are capped at $150,000. Some lawyers say the 180-day clock only starts ticking after a victim discovers an injury.
If the Democrats follow through, public schools could be sued under the two-year lawsuit window that state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Jefferson County, proposes opening.
Madden, a lawyer and co-sponsor of the bill, said she needs to research that, but it is possible.
School districts also could be exposed to greater liability under a House bill that would lift the statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases involving child sexual abuse.
Fitz-Gerald reiterated Saturday that public schools can be sued for unlimited damages under the Federal Civil Rights Act if a school fails to protect children from a known offender.
"I think the protections are there," Fitz-Gerald said. "I think (the church) is failing to see them right now."
A lawyer for the Colorado Catholic Conference has discounted that option, pointing out that scores of federal suits would have been filed against public schools if it were feasible.
Even if state laws were broadened to incorporate public schools, Catholic officials have not gone so far as to say they would support bills that could expose both public schools and churches to a plethora of lawsuits.
Jeanette DeMelo, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said support is possible, but no such legislation has been proposed.
Dore said the church would "encourage that discussion" about holding everyone to the same standards, but it remains a hypothetical situation.
Teachers take issue
The state's teachers union, meantime, is taking issue with the church's attempts to portray child sex abuse as a bigger problem in public schools than in churches.
"In a school situation, when a teacher or a employee is accused, or even some little hint comes along there may be a problem, schools and districts react so quickly, our lawyers say they're assuming guilt and are almost ripping them out of the classroom," said Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for Colorado Education Association.
"From everything I've read, the (Catholic) church has pretty much tried to sweep these issues under the carpet, and I don't think that's the case at all in schools," she said.
Other public-school organizations with a stake in the outcome - the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives - are studying the existing bills and have yet to take a position, representatives said.
Though no other church has gotten publicly involved in the debate, Denver Methodist Bishop Warner Brown said Saturday it would be inappropriate to bankrupt private groups that have taken steps to safeguard children but miss a bad apple.
"In this climate, it is clearly not a case of negligence because the churches I'm aware of are working hard to not allow this," said Brown, who oversees the United Methodist Church in Colorado, Utah and part of Wyoming. "In the distant past, all of us were operating under a different understanding."
At the same time, advocates of the existing bills are redoubling their lobbying efforts.
"There is concern that there has been a lot of pressure from the Catholic Conference that this is about the church," said Tamika Payne, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "It's deeply saddening because this is ... about giving all kids the ability to seek justice once they get older."
Staff writer Eric Gorski can be reached at 303-820-1698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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