||Bishop William P. Callahan, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, testifies at the public hearing held by the Assembly Committee for Children and Families October 21 on a bill seeking to eliminate statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner)
MADISON -- The Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC), the bishops’ voice for public policy, has opposed bills in the state legislature that would, if passed, repeal the statute of limitations for all civil suits filed by childhood sexual abuse victims.
The bills, identical to those that failed to pass in the 2007-08 legislative session, would also create a “window” for suits previously barred by the statute of limitations.
The current statute allows child sexual abuse victims 17 years past their 18th birthday to bring a case to civil court against their perpetrator or the perpetrator’s employer if the assault occurred due in part to the employer’s negligence. The bills would have no impact on criminal litigation.
The WCC has opposed the bills, Assembly Bill 453 and Senate Bill 319, on various points, including the need for statutes of limitations to ensure the ability of the parties to gather evidence in a reasonable time, the injustice of how the bill would impact governmental organizations less than other organizations, and the constitutionality of the window provision.
Victims seek justice
At a public hearing held in the Assembly Committee for Children and Families October 21 on AB-453, multiple victims of child sexual abuse spoke emotionally and sometimes angrily about their experiences. Four of the five abuse survivors testified they had been raped by Catholic priests. None of the four indicated they had pursued legal action against their abuser.
But Assembly Representative Joe Parisi (D-Madison), who defended the bill with co-sponsor Senator Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), repeatedly stated in his testimony that the bill was not about the Catholic Church. Others echoed the sentiment.
“This bill is about justice for past victims of child sexual assault,” Rep. Parisi said in his testimony. “And most importantly, it’s about preventing future acts of child sexual assault.
“Some will claim that this bill singles out the Catholic Church,” he said. “But let me be clear — this bill singles out people who have raped children; it singles out those who have enabled pedophiles, and it singles out those who have stood in the way of bringing perpetrators to justice.”
Impact on institutions
However, opponents of the bills say removing the statute of limitations would be unjust in its overall impact, particularly on private institutions.
Unless the bills are amended, current law provides that any person intending to bring an action against a public entity would have to file a notice within 120 days of suffering the injury and also caps the liability to $50,000 per person.
There is also for governmental bodies a statutory bar against punitive damages, which are often the largest component of civil lawsuit awards. Thus a public school system might be liable for only $50,000 in a suit, whereas its parochial school counterpart could be liable for millions.
Statistics on abuse
Various surveys have indicated that in reviews of priests since 1950, between one and 1.8 percent of priests have been accused of child sexual abuse, and the percentage for Protestant clergy ranges between two and three percent.
A 2004 report by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights that reviewed national statistics and studies on the subject found the incidence of child sexual abuse cases to be “significantly higher among public school teachers.” Statistics show the majority of child sexual abuse is committed by family members.
Impact on churches
Several opponents of the bill pointed out that while the Catholic Church has been heretofore most publicly and financially impacted by abuse lawsuits, small churches would be especially vulnerable to action taken against them.
Parishioners could be held liable for abuse that occurred decades ago, and social services to the poor and others in need offered by churches would be adversely affected. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee was taken to the brink of bankruptcy by cases brought after California changed its statutes due to a bill similar to those currently under consideration.
The constitutionality of the “window” allowing cases extending past a victim’s 35th birthday to be brought to court was called into question several times during the hearing by lawyers representing state and national civil justice organizations.
In 2004, when the legislature extended the statute of limitations from three years after a victim’s 18th birthday to its current deadline of 35 years of age, a “window” had been considered for previously barred suits to be allowed. Then-Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager had advised legislators that the proposal was constitutionally flawed.
The WCC and other organizations had supported the 2004 extension of the statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse of minors, but say these current bills go too far.
Moreover, Julianne Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, which lobbies for family issues, said that this bill represents a “band-aid approach” that doesn’t address the underlying issues.
“The truth is, there’s no amount of money and there’s no amount of number of years that you sentence a perpetrator to under the criminal statutes that’s really going to bring healing to the people who have been abused,” she said.
Both Bishop William P. Callahan, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and Bishop Jerome E. Listecki, bishop of the Diocese of LaCrosse, described in testimony at the hearing how the Catholic Church has been praised for its current approach to preventing sexual abuse of minors and providing healing to those who have been affected.
Bishop Callahan began his testimony at the hearing with an apology in the name of the Church to victims and survivors of sexual abuse, and the assurance that the sexual abuse of minors by clergy goes against everything the Church and priesthood represent.
“Yet I am reminded of the words of Dr. Paul McHugh, an internationally respected psychiatrist and expert on child abuse at Johns Hopkins University, who said that no one organization is doing more to prevent child abuse, and help those who have survived it, than the Catholic Church,” the bishop said.
What the Church is doing
The U.S. bishops in 2002 adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which defines the Church’s approach to the sexual abuse scandal as one of promoting healing and reconciliation with victims/survivors of child sexual abuse, guaranteeing an effective response to allegations of abuse, ensuring accountability of procedures, and protecting the faithful in the future through safe environment training. Annual audits ensure compliance with the charter articles.
The dioceses in Wisconsin work through an independent mediator to help heal victims of child sexual abuse by clergy. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has reached settlements, including financial compensation for therapy, with nearly 175 child sexual abuse victims whose claims were barred by the current statute of limitations.
For more information on how the Church is fighting to prevent the sexual abuse of minors, visit www.usccb.org/ocyp
The WCC is urging citizens to write their legislators in opposition to the two bills, SB-319 and AB-453. A brief for the 2007-08 bills is available on the WCC Web site, www.wisconsincatholic.org, in the 2008 issue briefs.