Monday, February 04, 2008

Colorado - Bill would lift limits on child abuse suits

Bill would lift limits on child abuse suits
by Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Rocky Mountain News
Monday, January 14, 2008

Colorado's Catholic Church leaders are planning to again fight a bill that would give victims more time to sue predators who sexually abused them as children.

A measure by state Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, would lift the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits for children who suffer sexual abuse from now on. Any past victims for whom the statute of limitations has expired would have a two-year window - starting in July - to file a civil lawsuit against their alleged abusers or any institution that knowingly allowed the abuse.

Ted Thompson, executive director for the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children, called on Colorado lawmakers to unanimously pass the bill.

"This issue is black and white," Thompson said. "When it comes to the sexual abuse of a child, a statute of limitation only limits the victims. You limit the person who suffered the abuse and give a get-out-of-jail- free card to the guy who did the abuse."

Under Colorado's current statute of limitations, Coloradans who suffer abuse have six years after they turn 18 to sue their abusers. Children's advocates say that is not enough time because many victims blame themselves and often hide their abuse for years before reporting it or considering criminal or civil action against their abuser.

In 2006, Green sponsored a bill that would have allowed victims unlimited time to file future lawsuits against private institutions if those institutions tried to cover up sexual abuse. The Catholic Church felt it was being unfairly singled out.

The bill eventually was amended to include public schools and governments. Those groups then joined in opposing the measure. The sponsors let their bill die rather than see it weakened.
This year's measure, House Bill 1011, never mentions the Catholic Church, but lobbyists for the church plan to fight it and have mounted campaigns against similar bills across the country.
In the Archdiocese of Denver, 44 cases of alleged sexual abuse have surfaced since 2005. The cases involved four priests, two of whom are now dead.

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Jeanette DeMelo said that lawyers for the church have settled 20 of those cases through mediation. Five other past victims approached the church directly and have participated in "healing and assistance'' with the archdiocese. An additional 19 civil suits still are pending against the church.

DeMelo said church officials have put in place extensive training programs and background checks to safeguard children in churches and schools.

"The archdiocese has been very committed to the safety of children,'' she said.

In the past, priests accused of abuse were sometimes transferred from church to church. Now, DeMelo said, church officials have stringent policies about removing suspected abusers.

"No one who has a credible allegation of sexual abuse against them works in the ministry in the archdiocese,'' she said.

Today, DeMelo said, church officials work hard to reach out to potential victims. "We have been proactive in seeking to offer healing assistance and mediation to past victims of sexual abuse.''

The Archdiocese of Denver has faced at least 35 lawsuits based on alleged sexual abuse decades ago by two priests, both of whom have died. Some of the suits were settled through mediation. DeMelo declined to comment on the proposed bill or the status of the other lawsuits.

Green, who is Catholic, said her motivation in supporting the bill was never to target the Catholic Church. Instead, as a mother, grandmother and social worker, she said she cares deeply about children and wanted to protect them from sexual predators and the long-term, costly impacts of abuse.

She was alarmed, she said, when she found that nearly all children who suffer sexual abuse are victims of a person in their family or an acquaintance in a position of trust.

Green's bill would allow lawsuits against private and public institutions only if the leaders of those institutions knew that the sexual predator had committed previous sexual abuse and failed to prevent additional abuse.

"I think it's really ironic that the leaders of a church that profess to follow Jesus would be working against the protection of children." Green said.

"I'm just trying to make abusers financially accountable."

Green said she is confident her bill will do well this year. She already has had GOP lawmakers step forward as co-sponsors.

Thompson said that 85 percent of the sexual abuse of children stems from people who are not clergy members.


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