Church Wins Allies on Sex-Abuse Bills
Lawmakers Agree to Add Public Agencies in Liability Overhaul

By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News [Colorado]
February 15, 2006,2777,DRMN_23906_4468137,00.html

Lawmakers started signing on Tuesday to the Catholic Church's call to make public agencies subject to the same liability rules as churches and nonprofits in sex- abuse cases involving children.

Twenty-six Republicans, led by Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, signed a letter to Rep. Rosemary Marshall, D-Denver, asking her to amend House Bill 1088 - one of three sex-abuse bills before the legislature - so that public entities are included in statute of limitations changes.

The letter also asks that caps on attorney fees be added to the legislation.

"If this legislation is truly about bringing justice to victims, then any compensation should predominantly flow to victims, and not trial lawyers," the letter says.

Another measure, House Bill 1090, was amended Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee to include public entities. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, would remove the statute of limitations for bringing civil claims for acts of sexual abuse against children that take place on or after July 1 of this year.

"We need to treat public and private institutions equally in terms of civil liability," said Gardner, who introduced the amendment to HB 1090.

Governmental immunity protects public, taxpayer-supported entities from harsh penalties associated with lawsuits. That legal principle limits liability to $150,000 in damages and requires a victim to file a suit within 180 days of the abuse.

Green supported the amendment, saying that while she has "a very deep concern" that government immunity not be weakened, in this case her goal is to stop predators and give victims justice whether the abuse happened in a public or private setting.

Committee chairman Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, voted for the amendment. But he said the church's tactic of bringing public schools into the debate over sex abuse "thoroughly disgusts me."

Chris Rose of the Colorado Catholic Conference said the amendment to Green's bill is welcome.

"That's all we've been asking for, so we're pleased that one piece of legislation is moving toward parity and holding all institutions to the same standard," Rose said.

The Archdiocese of Denver, which faces 24 sex-abuse lawsuits, and its allies have argued that public institutions should be on the same footing as nonprofits when it comes to such suits. Otherwise, they say, the legislation unfairly targets the church even though children are victimized in many settings.

The letter to Rep. Marshall echoes that view.

"If the intent is to eliminate the statute of limitations because victims often do not come forward until they are 30 or 40 years of age, it should make no difference by whom or where a person is employed," the letter said.

Marshall did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the letter.

The two House bills, plus one in the Senate, are designed to make it easier for victims of childhood sex abuse to bring civil lawsuits against their alleged perpetrators as well as the private institutions that employed them.

If both public and private entities face the same rules, then the system will be fair, Archbishop Charles Chaput said in an interview last week.

"If everybody has a stake in the bill(s) they will be amended to be fair and equitable," Chaput said. "If a large segment of society is indifferent to them because they aren't affected, we don't have an honest discussion. Justice is justice."

Under consideration

Lawmakers are considering three bills that would make it easier for adult victims of child abuse to sue their perpetrators and the institutions that employ them. These bills still could be amended.

• House Bill 1088: Removes criminal and civil statute of limitations in sex abuse cases, with some restrictions.

• House Bill 1090: Removes statute of limitations for filing sex abuse lawsuits involving a child when the alleged offense happened on or after July 1, 2006. Also makes it possible to sue private institutions that oversaw or employed the perpetrator. An amendment added Tuesday would include public institutions (such as public schools).

• Senate Bill 143: Creates a single two-year window in which plaintiffs can bring civil claims for sex abuse involving a child, no matter how old the case is. The alleged perpetrator may be dead or incapacitated, and institutions who oversaw the perpetrator can also be sued.


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