Bills Would Remove Limits on Abuse Claims

By Rebecca Waddingham
Greeley Tribune
February 12, 2006

Colorado lawmakers under fire from the Denver Archdiocese defended proposed legislation last week regarding the punishment for sex offenses against children.

The three bills would remove statutes of limitation for criminal and civil proceedings, meaning victims of sex crimes can sue decades after an incident, even if the perpetrator is dead.

The archdiocese took aim at the lawmakers, saying the bills unfairly hold churches and private nonprofits to a different standard. The Catholic church has come under fire nationally in recent years for allegedly harboring accused sex offenders in its ranks.

Rep. Rosemary Marshall, D-Denver, one of the bills' authors, said the church missed the point.

"The Catholic church has masterfully taken the true focus off House Bill 1088, which is designed to protect children, and put the focus on protecting institutions," Marshall said.

At all masses last week, including in Greeley, priests read a letter from the Rev. Charles Chaput, archbishop of Denver, about the bills.

"Some Colorado legislators seem determined to be harsh when it comes to Catholic and other private institutions, and much softer when it comes to their own public institutions," the letter read. "This is bad public policy and bad law."

Senate Bill 143 would open a two-year window for victims to file a lawsuit even if the accused is dead or incapacitated. House bills 1088 and 1090 would allow prosecution for sex crimes against children without time limits.

Current law says a child victim has until age 28 to file criminal charges against a perpetrator. In civil cases, once a victim's injury and its cause are legally determined, he or she has six years in which to file a civil lawsuit. Marshall's bill eliminates those windows.

Chaput said the bills were unfair because they exposed the church to more penalties than those faced by public schools, including potential "vicarious liability." That means an institution that employs someone who commits a sex crime -- say, for instance, an archdiocese who employs a pedophile priest -- can also be held liable in civil court.

Rep. Dale Hall, R-Greeley, heard about the bills at Mass on Feb. 5 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greeley, where he is a parishioner. He said he would vote against the House measures in their current form, including Marshall's bill.

"Right now the concern I have is that it only has to do with private and nonprofit institutions versus public institutions," Hall said. "I don't think it's fair to all; it's certainly not fair to the victims."

Hall echoed statements from diocesan officials last week, who said child abuse is child abuse, no matter where it happens.

"Evidence now clearly shows that public institutions, including public schools, are among the most common environments for sexual abuse of minors by adults," Chaput's letter read.

Governmental immunity protects public institutions from severe penalties. Public schools must be notified 180 days before a sex abuse claim is filed, and damages are limited to $150,000.

Hall said if those laws were changed to make public schools' penalties comparable to the ones churches might face under the proposed bills, he'd support them.

Another house member might introduce an amendment this week to that effect, Hall said. Marshall also noted other lawmakers are considering separate measures to tackle the protections enjoyed by public schools.

Victims can currently seek recompense for "willful and wanton" sexual crimes committed in schools under federal civil rights laws, Marshall said. There are no limits to damages sought under those laws.

Nothing in Marshall's bill changes laws about vicarious liability for private institutions, which can already be sued; all it would do is eliminate the time limit for a victim seeking justice.

"The argument regarding this legislation is a bogus one," she said.

Marshall said child victims of sex crimes sometimes take years to come forward. Victims may not recognize the true extent of their emotional injuries until late in adulthood.

She believes the archdiocese is concerned it will face more civil lawsuits if her bill passes.

In 2002, stories of sexual abuse, sometimes decades old, spread through the Boston Archdiocese and rippled through the rest of the country. Catholic churches paid millions to compensate victims, sometimes closing parishes to recoup losses. But Denver's archdiocese seemed to largely escape the scandal.

Last summer, however, two middle-aged men separately charged that they had been molested in the 1960s by the Rev. Harold Robert White, who was removed from the priesthood in 2004 after working at more than a dozen Colorado churches over 33 years, according to published accounts.

As the scandal unfolded in the past four years, some dioceses were found to have moved known pedophiles from parish to parish in an effort to conceal and protect them.

Marshall said that if a public school did something similar, the school would face unlimited penalties under federal law.

"If the church (were to be) negligent about it, they could then be sued for just neglecting or willfully intending to protect a pedophile or to not report this kind of a crime," under Marshall's legislation, she said.

"The playing field is not as unlevel as the Catholic church would suggest that it is."


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