11 Dec 2010

Catholic Conference fights law reforms across the U.S. that would extend statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases

The Detroit News - June 25, 2010

Church fights lifting of sex abuse suit limits

by Ron French

Lansing -- The abuse David Collins suffered as a teen from a Catholic priest in the archdiocese of Detroit confused him for decades.

He spiraled into alcohol abuse. He suffered years of depression and post-traumatic stress. His relationships suffered because he had trouble trusting others.

Twenty-six years after the abuse, he's confused again.

The church has paid for extensive counseling for Collins, 40, of Livonia. Officials from the Archdiocese of Detroit have met with him and been apologetic and sympathetic, Collins said. But the church also is lobbying to stop legislation that would allow victims like Collins from suing the church.

"They say one thing to me and say something else (to others) depending on the context," Collins said. "It seems somewhat hypocritical."

Victims of abuse by Catholic clergy are expressing dismay at the strong lobbying the church is doing in Lansing to halt an effort to remove Michigan's statute of limitations on sex abuse cases. In Michigan, victims must file criminal or civil complaints by the time they turn 19 -- what some say is an unrealistic limit on kids who often are traumatized for years by the abuse.

The church maintains that removing the statute of limitations could open the floodgates to abuse cases that are a half-century old and could take money away from programs that benefit the poor. But victims such as Collins see the church's actions as another example of the church protecting itself rather than victims.

House, Senate consider bills

There are bills in the Michigan House and Senate that would extend the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases. The Senate bill would increase the time during which a lawsuit can be filed to 20 years after the victim turns 18; the House bill calls would increase the time to 30 years after the victim turns 18.

The House bill also offers a two-year window of time after passage during which there is no statute of limitations at all.

It's the fourth time such legislation has been presented in Lansing in the past decade. This year is the first time the bill even got a committee hearing.

"Right now, the law protects the predator, not the victim," said Rep. Deb Kennedy, D-Brownstown, who sponsored the House bill. "This is about giving victims their day in court."

Similar legislation has been introduced in numerous states recently, with different results. Alaska, Maine and Delaware have extended or eliminated statutes of limitations for civil and criminal cases involving child sex abuse; Connecticut gives victims until age 48; Pennsylvania to age 53. In New York, a bill to create a one-time, one-year window for child sex abuse victims to file lawsuits without a statute of limitations was defeated for the fifth year in a row. Florida removed its statute of limitations on such cases, but only for cases going forward -- not retroactively.

The Catholic Church, through its lobbying arm, the Catholic Conference, has fought changes in states across the country. The Michigan Catholic Conference is the primary lobbying opponent of the bills in Lansing.

Dave Maluchnik, director of communications for the Michigan Catholic Conference, calls House Bill 5699 "blatantly discriminatory" because it excludes abuse that occurs in public schools and state government institutions, while leaving churches, nonprofits and private institutions open to lawsuits involving decades-old allegations of abuse.

"Statutes of limitations are critical to protecting the due process rights of all involved," Maluchnik said. "When you bring forth an allegation from the 1930s or 1940s, how do you defend that? It's impossible, especially when the person you are bringing allegations against is no longer alive."

Kennedy argues that the bill doesn't change the amount of evidence needed to win a case -- it just allows cases to be filed. "You're still presumed innocent until proven guilty," Kennedy said. "The burden of proof is still on the victim.

"The only organized opposition I'm aware of is the Michigan Catholic Conference."

Maluchnik points out that the church has come a long way in the past decade. More than 100,000 Catholic church employees have had background checks; children have gone through training to spot problems and report them. "There is a safe environment coordinator in each diocese, and there is a zero-tolerance policy, one strike and you're out," Maluchnik said. "I don't know of any other institution in the state that has done as much in the past 10 years as the church to assure the safety of children and families."

Substitute bill is backed

The Michigan Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Church, supported a substitute bill that would increase the statute of limitations to the age of 23. But that increase would not help most victims, said Brad Sylvester, the Michigan director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "I have yet to have one survivor under the age of 35 come to SNAP," Sylvester said. "Most (of the victims) are confused" about why the church as taken such a strong stance against the lawsuits.

Part of the reason may be economic. Maluchnik said a diocese in Washington declared bankruptcy as a result of a rash of lawsuits. "They had to eliminate many of their outreach programs to immigrants and poor," Maluchnik said.

Rep. Bob Constan, D-Dearborn Heights, predicted at a hearing on the House bill that the legislation would result in excessive lawsuits against institutions.

Proponents and critics of the bill agree that sex abuse cases within the Catholic Church are only a small fraction of cases that could come to light if the statute of limitations is increased or lifted completely. But the church gets attention because "the Catholic Church is the only group that comes to Lansing to oppose it," Sylvester said.

Kennedy is optimistic that a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill can be found. "This is my No. 1 priority," Kennedy said. "

Sylvester is less hopeful. "The chances are dying quickly," he said. "We can't get enough of the Catholics on board."

Collins is grateful that the church has helped him pay for therapy, but believes it needs to do more. "Things in my life are still difficult," he said.

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