Delayed Justice

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 11, 2010

State senators should approve a bill that would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to obtain the justice they deserve.

On Tuesday, a state Senate committee is slated to hold a public hearing on a bill aimed at helping victims of childhood sexual abuse. Senators should make sure they listen closely to the testimony of victims - much of which will be uncomfortable and heartbreaking - and in the end vow to support the measure when it comes up for a vote.

They should pay just as close attention to those who oppose the measure and consider adjusting it where necessary. But in the end, as a simple matter of justice, this measure deserves to become law.

Senate Bill 319 would repeal the state's civil statute of limitations in childhood sexual abuse cases involving adults or adult clergy and open a three-year window for victims who had been barred previously from suing. Currently, victims can sue until they reach age 35.

The bill is modeled after laws passed in California and Delaware. Supporters say the California law has resulted in identification of 300 previously unknown sex offenders.

The Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and others have raised concerns about the bill and the damage it could do to the financial wellbeing of churches, especially small congregations with few financial resources. No doubt those concerns will be raised again in testimony Tuesday. And if some accommodation can be made for small churches, that should be considered.

It's also true that churches, and the Catholic Church in particular, have made strides in efforts to meet the needs of victims and in preventing future abuse by clergy. But at the same time, there is still a tone-deafness that indicates some leaders still lack a clear understanding of the pain of victims.

Witness the participation, also planned for Tuesday, of two retired archbishops - Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee and Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati - in liturgies at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. These were leaders of dioceses that famously failed to provide adequate protection for children. To place them on a pedestal now sends exactly the wrong message. So does the refusal to reconsider whether it is appropriate to display at the cathedral a bas-relief of a figure that could be interpreted as Weakland alongside children.

Yes, the church is, and should be, about redemption and compassion. But redemption and compassion need to involve victims and should include an awareness of their pain - and redress.

State legislators should approve legislation that would allow victims to obtain the justice they deserve.

Should the Legislature approve Senate Bill 319? To be considered for publication as a letter to the editor, e-mail your opinion to the Journal Sentinel editorial department.


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