Clergy Sex Abuse Victims Back Tougher Law
By Pat Schneider
September 19, 2003
A litany of outrages was voiced at a State Capitol hearing as scores of survivors of clergy sexual abuse bore witness Thursday to the crimes against them.
In tears and anger, in voices loud and small, adult survivors from around the state and beyond recalled moments of their childhood when molestation at the hands of a trusted clergy member changed their lives.
The assaults were made behind altars, in rectories and at waysides on the road, in the guise of love or games, or as clothes-ripping attacks, the survivors testified.
"He took everything from me," Michael Sneesby said of the priest who abused him for several years in his Milwaukee parish when he was a boy.
Sneesby and other survivors joined representatives of mainline religions, legal experts and others at a hearing on a proposed clergy abuse law before the joint Assembly Judiciary and Senate Judiciary, Corrections and Privacy committees.
Committee leaders said they did not know when a vote would be taken.
While most religious organizations in the state support the legislation, survivors of abuse said it falls short because -- while it significantly extends the statute of limitations for bringing criminal or civil actions against sex abusers of minors -- it fails to provide an opportunity to sue for victims for whom the statute of limitations has expired.
A provision offering a one-year window for lawsuits in older cases was dropped from earlier versions of the bill.
Rep. Peggy Krusick, D-Milwaukee, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it was dropped after the Legislative Council advised that it was unconstitutional.
Rep. David Cullen, D-Milwaukee, pressed the sponsors to restore the retroactive window and let litigants take their chances in court.
But John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, testified that restoring it would likely mean the Catholic Church would no longer support the bill.
Survivors, whose testimony of past assaults cracked open a national scandal in the Catholic Church, said there can be no justice for them without a chance for their day in court.
Lawsuits open up church records, laying bare cover-ups and the existence of more victims, survivors testified.
Without the threat of litigation, churches won't negotiate meaningful settlements, they said.
Peter Isely, Milwaukee coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by a Priest, or SNAP, used huge placards to trace how evidence of institutional manipulations was revealed in a lawsuit against the priest who abused him.
"This is not about past and future victims; it's about future abusers," Isely said. "It's about Wisconsin being the shame of the nation."
Lawsuits also give survivors the chance to name and confront their abusers, many of whom threatened and bullied victims and their families into silence, survivors said.
Patty Gallagher Marchant, a SNAP activist and Milwaukee therapist, testified to being raped in the 1960s in her Monona parish by the Rev. Lawrence Trainor.
"He told me I was the chosen one," Marchant said.
American Catholic dioceses last year established independent boards to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by priests, and the Madison Diocese in February named Trainor as one of four priests against whom documented allegations of serious sexual abuse had been made, resulting in $1.6 million in settlements to 19 victims.
It was the first time the diocese had publicly acknowledged the case against Trainor.
Madison Bishop Robert Morlino on Thursday testified in favor of the bill in its current form, saying it would help restore people's faith in the church.
"Society is calling on us to face our shortcomings and challenging us in conscience," he said. "I want you to know we've heard that call," he told committee members.
Morlino said he did not know whether changing the law to permit a window of retroactivity was an appropriate response to the suffering of abuse survivors.
Survivors testified that the psychological damage of sexual molestation can prevent victims from realizing the extent to which they've been damaged for decades after the assaults.
Marchant said that even with strong family support that allowed her to develop a profession and a strong marriage, she didn't fully confront the extent to which she'd been violated until she was 35 years old. Then began the battle with the Madison diocese for acknowledgement of the harm done to her, she said.
State law sets the statute of limitations on serious sex abuse of a child at age 31 for the victim in criminal cases and age 20 for civil litigation. The proposed law would raise those limits to age 45 for the victim in criminal cases and age 35 in civil cases.
The bill also would add clergy members to the list of professionals required by law to report suspected child abuse to civil authorities.
A further bar to the courts for victims in Wisconsin has been a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling in a case involving a priest's sexual relationship with an adult. The court said it could not evaluate whether the Catholic Church had properly hired, supervised or trained workers because of constitutional constraints. Lawsuits against the church in Wisconsin evaporated when that ruling came down.
Krusick said that decision never prohibited a lawsuit in a case of child sexual assault, but that her legislation would codify existing law by stating that the sexual abuse of child by a clergy member is a cause of action.
Mark Salmon of Milwaukee testified how Wisconsin law and cover-ups by the Catholic Church allowed his abuser to go free here while he has been sued and prosecuted in Kentucky.
"Why is Wisconsin the safest place for pedophiles in the nation?" Salmon asked.
Mary Beth Volz of Menomonee Falls testified that the priest who raped her as a child left the church to marry, but his status as a priest protected him from ever being exposed and prosecuted.
"He has grandchildren now. I pray for them all the time," Volz said.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE BILL
Statute of limitations: Raise victim statute of limitations for serious abuse from age 31 to age 45 in criminal cases and from age 20 to age 35 in civil cases.
Reporting requirement: Add clergy members to the list of professionals required by law to report suspected child abuse to civil authorities.
Codification: Codify existing law by specifically stating that the sexual abuse of a child by a clergy member is a cause of legal action.
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