Emotional Day of Abuse-Bill Testimony
Measure Moves to Full Senate after Church Arguments Rejected
By Mark P. Couch
February 14, 2006
Colorado Catholic Church officials had a message Monday for state lawmakers: Do unto yourselves as you would do unto us.
Church representatives argued that a bill to give sexual-abuse victims greater legal power to sue their attackers and their employers was unfair because it exposed the church, but not public schools, to lawsuits.
But the Senate State Affairs Committee rejected the church's argument, voting 5-1 after nearly 7? hours of emotional debate from sex- abuse victims, priests who supported the bill and church attorneys who opposed it.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for its review.
The bill would open a two-year window to let victims of sexual abuse sue, even if the statute of limitations on the crime had expired. It also would allow victims to sue private institutions for the actions of a person who is dead or incapacitated and would let some claimants recover money in excess of the costs of medical treatment and counseling. Current law allows victims to file a claim against the perpetrator's employer up to six years after the offense.
As darkness fell outdoors, more than 20 alleged victims or their family members testified - sometimes in graphic detail - about the sexual abuse the victims said they endured as children. Many of them held pictures of themselves as children. Some described suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and bouts of depression.
Senate President Joan Fitz- Gerald, a Catholic and sponsor of Senate Bill 143, said that the bill is "about crime, not canon law" and that she was saddened by the outpouring of testimony about her church.
The panel offered a tour-de- force course in political staging. Martin Nussbaum, an attorney for the church, was called to speak after three Colorado men testified about being victims of sexual abuse more than 50 years ago.
But that didn't affect Nussbaum's ardent testimony. He argued strenuously against the bill, presenting a list of 85 Colorado public-school teachers who had their teaching licenses revoked for sexual incidents.
He cited those violations as evidence that Senate Bill 143 fails to protect all children.
"It's simply not a level playing field," Nussbaum said. "The Catholic Church is saying, 'Let's
join hands"' to craft a solution that covers all institutions.
Some lawmakers noted that the list of teachers was acquired by church officials using the state's open-records law when the church itself does not have to comply with such requests for information.
Tim Dore, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, also suggested that lawmakers would be doing the bidding of plaintiff's attorneys who are eager to sue the church.
That accusation and the claim that public-school students are at the same risk of child molestation prompted a sharp response.
"This idea that we may have done some things wrong in the past, but look over here at what's happening over here," said Sen. Peter Groff, D-Denver, "it is despicable to me. ... You have a higher calling than this. You all should be out in front of this bill saying, 'Our churches can do better than this."'
Others testified that the church should not be putting money ahead of morals.
"I believe that it is blasphemous to put the financial security of my church or any church above the moral or spiritual well-being of the most vulnerable members of that organization," said Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest and an expert in church law.
Many victims said they were too scared or embarrassed to come forward at the time of the abuse.
"For all these years, there has been a doorway to a room that has been locked," said Martin Murphy, a Colorado man who said it was the first time he spoke publicly about being abused more than 50 years ago.
Staff writer Mark P. Couch can be reached at 303-820-1794 or email@example.com.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.