Church Bill Needs Major Overhaul
Statutes of Limitation Exist for Good Reason

Rocky Mountain News [Colorado]
February 15, 2006,2777,DRMN_23964_4467306,00.html

Perfect justice is not an option in the clash between the Catholic church in Colorado and a coalition of lawmakers, attorneys and alleged victims of sexual abuse. But Senate Bill 143, which dispenses with time-honored principles of law to target one institution for a possible torrent of lawsuits alleging incidents from decades ago, is likely to do far more harm than good.

Under current law, a person has six years to file civil charges in a sexual abuse case, unless the abuse occurred when the victim was a minor; then the accuser has until age 24 to come forward.

SB 143 would suspend the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases for two years. Within that window, anyone could sue a private entity or its employees, no matter how long ago the alleged offense took place - even if the perpetrator has died. And it would hold institutions liable to pay unlimited monetary damages.

Supporters say the bill would provide justice and closure. Perhaps for some. There's little doubt that church officials in some corners of this country took great pains to prevent public disclosure of horrific offenses; and it's possible there were similar abusers in Colorado who were not promptly removed from contact with minors. In Denver, lawsuits so far target two priests, one dead and the other long retired.

But this proposal is no remedy. It would invite speculative litigation, too, and is tailor-made to perhaps bankrupt a Catholic diocese or two. At a marathon committee hearing on Monday, every witness focused on the church's purported culpability. And the section of the bill that opens institutions to legal liability is clearly aimed at the church. It specifically strips the church of a possible defense - that forcing a priest into counseling represented a reasonable safeguard to such allegations decades ago.

The statute of limitations is not merely a legalistic "convenience," as law professor Marci Hamilton testified Monday.

Statutes of limitation acknowledge that as time elapses, evidence goes stale, memories fade, witnesses disappear or die, and that corroborating records may not exist. Juries may be swayed by courtroom theatrics rather than facts. There is much greater opportunity for dubious claims.

A statute of limitation of 10 years even applies to the criminal prosecution of rape.

But the risk of stale evidence isn't the only reason to honor a statute of limitations for civil action - particularly where unlimited liability is involved. Attitudes toward the use of mental health treatment change. Reporting expectations and requirements shift. Finally - and most importantly in this context - the people punished will not be those responsible for what happened. The current generation of church leaders and parishioners will pay - literally - for the actual and alleged transgressions of people who died or moved on long ago.

The Denver archdiocese has hinted that it might back legislation that also permits such lawsuits against government agencies. But this "level playing field" would only compound the injustice.

We might have sympathy for legislation that adjusts - not lifts - the statute of limitations if the law also placed tight limits on monetary damages. The victims who testified Monday said they did not seek financial reward but simple vindication - recognition from the church that their suffering was genuine and that their cries should have been heard. But at the moment, such a remedy is not even being discussed.


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