Healing the Wounds

Albany Times Union [New York]
February 25, 2006

In 14 pages of patient, almost exhaustive, legal detail, the highest court in New York explained the other day why more than three dozen people who say they were victims of sexually abusive Roman Catholic priests can't go to court to seek the appropriate damages. Simply stated, they waited too long.

One of the complainants, a former student at a parochial school in Utica, says he was abused from 1963 to 1970. The others, 42 people in all, recounted abuses that they said were inflicted upon them by 13 different priests in the Brooklyn diocese between 1960 and 1985.

That makes it too late to seek justice for what has all the appearances of what the Court of Appeals calls the deplorable acts of countless priests. Injuries are compounded by a law that requires suits to be filed within three years of an alleged incident or before the person suing turns 21, whichever is later. That's too rigid and too brief.

The people who have unresolved issues with the clergy have them as well with the state Legislature. That's where the law must be changed to give sexual abuse victims a more reasonable amount of time to first come to terms with their trauma and then to come forward. The complainant in the Utica case, John Zumpano, had argued, for example, that the abuse he suffered left him mentally incapable of taking legal action before the statute of limitations had expired. The court, however, rejected his argument.

The court's rejection of his claim, and of the Brooklyn case, as well, leaves no doubt as to where the problem is. Tuesday's decision begins this way:

"In recent years, countless priests have been accused of impermissibly touching and mentally exploiting young people entrusted to their care, resulting in a plethora of claims seeking compensation for the injuries caused by those deplorable acts. Regrettably, many of these claims are time-barred and absent relief from the Legislature will remain unredressed."

Will legislators get the message, clear as it is?

It's an issue they've evaded so far. State Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, has been pushing since at least 2003 to extend the statute of limitations. The Assembly recently passed a measure sponsored by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, D-Queens, to give sexual victims a one-year opportunity to seek civil damages, regardless of other legal restrictions. Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, plans to introduce similar legislation.

Still, theirs are rather lonely voices in an institution that's been all too content to merely talk, but not act, about a genuine scandal. New York might follow the examples of other states. California has opened the very one-year window Ms. Markey favors. The leaders of the Colorado legislature have called for a two-year period for such claims to be filed.

Now, these people -- Mr. Duane, Ms. Markey and their peers in other legislatures -- have gained an unlikely ally. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who himself experienced the inappropriate conduct of a priest some 60 years ago, wants the statutes of limitations temporarily lifted nationwide. He speaks for victims and the obstacles they face.

"They are intimidated, embarrassed and they just bury it," Bishop Gumbleton recently told The Washington Post. "I understand that."

But do state legislators understand it? Reading the Court of Appeals' decision might help them in that quest.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.