Thursday, January 20, 2011
Catholic lobby wants to limit statue of limitations for abuse suits
By Brandon Shulleeta Published: January 19, 2011
Catholic Church leaders hope to soften Virginia legislation that could open the church to new lawsuits claiming child molestation by priests.
The state Senate is considering a bill that would give child molestation victims a longer window of time to file civil lawsuits against both their perpetrators and organizations complicit in the abuse.
Companion bills had been filed in the House of Delegates and the Senate, but the House Courts of Justice Subcommittee last week amended the proposed 25-year limitation to eight years - after being lobbied by Virginia Catholic Conference Executive Director Jeff Caruso.
Caruso said in an interview that he told state lawmakers that many states have far lower statutes of limitations than 25 years.
Caruso, a spokesman for Virginia's two Catholic dioceses' bishops, said the bishops support a "reasonable" expansion of the time period in which child abuse victims can file lawsuits beyond the state's current two-year limit.
"I think the key word is 'reasonable,'" Caruso said.
Some child protection lobbyists believe the Catholic Church is fighting to limit its financial liabilities at the detriment of child molestation victims.
"It's a sad day when pedophiles and their enablers have paid lobbyists and victims have to beg for justice," said Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children. "The last thing we want is to make this anything about the church. ... They inserted themselves into this."
The Catholic Church has faced global scrutiny in recent years in the face of revelations of some priests being transferred to different parishes after molesting children, where some have sexually abused a new set of children.
Now the Catholic Church is trying to restore its image, with Pope John Paul II having issued new guidelines for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse.
In recent years, Catholic Church lobbyists have worked to block attempts in other states to lengthen the period in which victims can file lawsuits against predators and the church.
In 2009, Maryland legislators voted down a bill that would have given child sex abuse victims until age 50 to file a lawsuit against the perpetrator and complicit organizations after the Maryland Catholic Conference put up a vigorous defense, claiming the legislation would have discouraged prompt reporting of child abuse.
In Virginia, victims of child molestation currently have two years to file a lawsuit after either turning 18 or discovering personal damage, whichever comes later. Experts say some child molestation victims experience memory repression and memories of the crimes don't resurface until many years later. Corporations and nonprofits, including churches, can also be held liable if deemed to have been complicit in the abuse.
"When you have third-party defendants that are involved, I think that's where you get into the issue of recognizing that there has to be a reasonable length of time," Caruso said, arguing that the church might have a difficult time defending itself against claims of abuse that occurred long ago. "Again, memories fade and witnesses have died or they can't be located, and at that point, it's very difficult to present evidence in a defense."
But Weeks argues that the church leaders' argument "doesn't wash."
"I've met hundreds of survivors of child sexual abuse and talked with them at length - every imaginable tragedy you can think of. And most of them, even the strongest, are still struggling to come to terms with this decades later," Weeks said, adding that lost or aged evidence works in favor of the defense. "Nobody can or should win a lawsuit without evidence."
Weeks argues that extending the statute of limitations to eight years is far better than two, but doesn't go far enough. Weeks said that he believes the civil statute of limitations should be lifted altogether in Virginia.
"Shouldn't we let victims pursue justice when they want to? Isn't that in our interest? More predators will be exposed. More collaborators will be exposed. It makes the entire society safe," Weeks said.
"Eight years is not enough," Weeks said. "This is not decency to force these people into court and say 'now or never,' because the reality is that many of them are going to come to terms with this much later [in life]."
Mark McAllister, 40, of Roanoke County, received a settlement of $600,000 from the Catholic Church after filing a lawsuit in Missouri alleging a priest sexually abused him regularly for five years, beginning at the age of 13.
But McAllister didn't file the suit until after coming to terms with the abuse at the age of 37, he said in an interview. McAllister said that he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and had repressed memory of the incident.
The Rev. Carmine Sita of St. Aloysius Church in Jersey City, N.J., had previously been sentenced to five years of probation connected to an alleged case of child sex abuse. After being sent to a treatment center, he had his name changed to Gerald Howard and was transferred to a small parish in Missouri - where McAllister says the priest sexually abused him.
Howard is awaiting trial for numerous felonies, including multiple counts of forcible sodomy.
McAllister, who plans to testify in front of the Virginia Senate, said that at the age of 37 he began having nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts that "all sort of centered around this individual and what happened between us, and initially I wasn't even sure it was real."
McAllister, the Western Virginia director of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, argues that it's unreasonable to expect all child sexual abuse victims to come forward at a young age.
"It's a huge amount of shame and guilt that goes along with it. The perpetrators are very good making the victim feel responsible that they in some manner contributed to it, that they were an equal or willing participant," McAllister said. "Denial is so much of an easier route to take for a lot of the victims. ... Until they realize how deeply it affects their lives, it's just simply an easier route to take. Some victims, on the other hand, simply eliminate it from memory."
Caruso said Catholic Church leaders in Virginia don't plan to point to a specific year as an appropriate civil statute of limitations. However, he noted that about 30 states have a civil statute of limitations of two to five years for child sex abuse cases.
"There's only six states that have a statute of limitations of 25 years or greater, and of the remainder, the majority of those fall in the seven to 10 years range," Caruso said. "Rather than pointing to a specific number, I think that this survey of what other states do in this area really kind of presents a reasonable context."
Caruso said that the Richmond and Arlington dioceses have implemented mandatory background checks for employees and volunteers. There's also been "safe environment" training, and there's a requirement to report abuse to law enforcement.
Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax County, filed the House bill to extend the civil statute of limitations to 25 years. However, he said that Caruso presented a compelling case for a smaller window.
"They're probably right," Albo said. "If it was 25 years it creates a problem, because what if you discovered it when you were 40? And then you have 25 more years? You'd be trialing a case 55 years after the event happened. And witnesses pass away. People forget [things]."
"I kind of wished it was more than eight, but you know, politics is the art of the possible," Albo said. "We took the higher end of what most states do."
Albo noted that there is no criminal statute of limitations for felony child sex abuse cases in Virginia, contending that perpetrators could still be locked up for crimes that aren't reported until much later.
Attempts to interview Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo of the Richmond Diocese were unsuccessful. Caruso said he speaks on behalf of Arlington Diocese Bishop Paul S. Loverde and DiLorenzo. Aides said Wednesday that DiLorenzo's schedule was booked and a follow-up email to DiLorenzo requesting an interview had not been responded to as of press time.
It was also unclear, as of press time, when the Senate plans to discuss the companion statute of limitations bill