Sunday, March 02, 2008

Marci A. Hamilton: Killing abuse suit bill puts children at risk
Professor Marci Hamilton

Killing abuse suit bill puts children at risk
By Marci A. Hamilton
Baltimore Examiner
February 29, 2008

BALTIMORE - Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Maryland lawmakers shelved legislation to identify predators among us. With HB858, Maryland was part of a national movement to eliminate statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. This bill offered the hope of a “window” to allow claims previously barred.

Our legal system favors predators over the protection of children. By the time victims are capable of coming forward, the law lets predators escape through the statute of limitations — again and again.

Those predators now live and work near — often with — our children, but we do not know who they are because we keep the courthouse locked against victims.

Perhaps even harder to understand, the Catholic Conference of Maryland killed this bill through lies and misrepresentations about its purposes and effects.

Churches recently distributed handouts to area Catholics making outrageous and dishonest claims. They argued the legislation “targets” the church, even though its terms plainly cover all private institutions. This claim must be challenged — clergy members attack about 5 percent of victims in this country. The rest are attacked by family, family acquaintances, teachers, coaches, scout leaders and others. Those are covered by the bill as well. So let’s get to the truth: The church’s lobbyists concocted a false accusation of “targeting” when really they are keeping the courthouse locked against millions of other victims.

The hierarchy also claims the bill targets it because so many claims have been brought against the church in other jurisdictions. But hasn’t it just made the case for the bill? Don’t the numbers prove the need for the bill? The public impact is extraordinary. Window legislation revealed predators we could not have known otherwise.

We have had two windows so far. In California 300 perpetrators were identified who were unknown before. Delaware’s window opened in July, but in both states records proved the hierarchy continues to harbor an unconscionable number of secrets, and helped to identify predators in other states.

The church also misled about who really pays settlements for covering up child abuse. So far, 50 percent of settlements have been paid by the insurance companies to whom the dioceses were paying premiums for years.

The other 50 percent has been paid by sale of land unrelated to ministry. Schools weren’t shut down and services were not curtailed. Instead, the church sold office buildings, mansions and empty lots. Indeed, one would hardly expect Catholic Charities to be affected by any settlement given that a minimum of 70 percent of funds for the major Catholic services provider comes from local, state and federal taxes.

Predictably, the church’s lobbyists complained the bill applies only to private institutions and not to public. The Constitution divides private and public, and states have always treated the two as separate.

Here is what the citizens of Maryland need to understand: If the conference really cared about children, it would introduce a bill to apply the same principles in HB858 to public entities. I support such reform. But its goal in talking about equal treatment is to kill the bill, not to aid all children.

Finally, church lobbyists argue that reopening the statutes of limitations is unfair, because evidence gets stale and witnesses die. Those deficiencies undermine the victims’ cases. It only removes the bar to a lawsuit. It does not alter the burden of proof.

Nor does the church take responsibility for the fact that the statute of limitations ran out because it did not call police when it knew priests committed crimes.

We are all complicit in the national silent epidemic of childhood sexual abuse by legally protecting predators and endangering children. Maryland leaders failed to make this state a safer place for our children.

While the men of the Catholic hierarchy and their lobbyists toast one another for eviscerating HB858, Maryland parents will never learn about 90 percent of the predators in their midst, and incest survivors can only wonder how propaganda could push their interests off the table.

Marci Hamilton is a visiting professor at Princeton University and the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect. She is also on the advisory board of The Awareness Center, Inc.


Anonymous Barbara Pash and Joan Murphy said...

Bromwell Withdraws Anti-Sex Offender Bill
by Barbara Pash and Joan Murphy
Special to the Jewish Times

A bill to extend the statute of limitations in civil suits related to child sexual abuse has been withdrawn by its sponsor, Del. Eric Bromwell (D-8th). The bill, House Bill 858, was based on a similar bill that was unsuccessfully introduced last year by Sen. James Brochin (D-42nd).

A call to Mr. Bromwell after he removed the bill on Feb. 28 was not returned by press time. His aides said he would support other sex offender bills that are being considered in the General Assembly. However, Mr. Bromwell said in an interview with the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES before he withdrew the bill, that he has been inundated with e-mails and letters about it.

“Most, if not all the feedback I’ve gotten so far, is people are being spoke to at their churches. Catholic churches are asking people to contact me. The legislation is being seen as aimed at the Catholic Church. But it’s clearly a bigger issue than that,” said Mr. Bromwell, a graduate of Calvert Hall, a Catholic high school in Towson who said he has been feeling heat from the Catholic Conference, a church lobbying group, “more so than any other issue I’ve had” in his six years as a delegate.

However, Mr. Bromwell added, “Awareness about the issue has grown, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses.”

Mr. Bromwell said that his bill and Mr. Brochin’s 2007 Senate Bill 575 are ‘slightly different in wording, but the intent is the same.”

Mr. Bromwell’s bill would have increased the statute of limitations within which a victim could bring a civil claim from the current seven years after turning age 18 to 32 years after age 18. In order to qualify, the victim would have had to provide a certificate of merit from an attorney and a mental health professional. In addition, the bill contained a one-year, four-month long “window,” starting January 1, 2009, during which victims for whom even the extended statute of limitations had passed could bring a claim under certain conditions.

Mr. Brochin’s bill had a window to file claims regardless of the victim’s current age. It failed in the Senate committee to which it was assigned a hearing, and Mr. Brochin is outspoken about the intense pressure he came under last year while it was being considered.

“Last year, the Catholic Conference, a lobbying group, passed out petitions at Catholic churches against me,” said Mr. Brochin. “Calvert Hall alumni mailed something to the effect that tuition would be raised [because of his bill]. I got hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from Calvert Hall alum.

“It got brutal, ugly and intense, and they are doing to [Mr. Bromwell] what they did to me last year,” said Mr. Brochin.

He added, “I didn’t get pressure from other organizations.”

Mr. Bromwell’s bill was not the only one dealing with sex offenders. On Feb. 19, more than a dozen House bills dealing with sex offenders were heard in committee.

Mr. Brochin said the large number of bills on the issue reflects a growing public awareness of the issue. “Legislators are hearing from their constituents,” he said. “Despite some gains made, we haven’t gone far enough. The feeling is, society isn’t safe.”

Last year, Maryland lawmakers toughened sentencing guidelines for convicted sex offenders under Jessica’s Law. At the hearing, however, prosecutors and child advocates banded together in supporting even tougher penalties for sex crimes against children.

One of the bills at the hearing was House Bill 523, which expands current felony charges against teachers having sexual contact with school-aged children to include authority figures at other locations such as those at religious institutions, after-school programs, camps, sports programs and other activities where adults have direct influence over minors.

The Maryland Sheriffs Association testified in support of the bill, saying that individuals such as coaches, camp counselors, day care providers and religious leaders should not be allowed to use their positions to prey upon minors. But committee members questioned the fairness of a bill that could force a 21-year-old camp counselor who has a relationship with a 17-year-old to register as a sex offender for life.

Several of the bills at the hearing would add Maryland to a growing list of states that render downloading of child pornography a felony. Prosecutors said Maryland is one of six states that ranks the crime as a misdemeanor, making it difficult to convince judges to send these criminals to jail. Although the crime is a felony at the federal level, federal investigators are stretched too thin to prosecute these crimes, said prosecutors.

“It’s an instruction manual for further abuse,” Peggy Cairns, of the Maryland Coalition Against Pornography, said in her testimony supporting tougher penalties for possession of child pornography.
But the Maryland Office of Public Defender’s Office testified against the bills, saying possession should not hold the same legal weight as participating in child pornography.

Other bills at the hearing would ban certain child sex offenders from earning good behavior credits in prison, a practice that guarantees their early release from mandatory sentences. These bills received renewed interest after a man with a record of sex offenses and burglaries who had been released early from prison was found hiding in the bedroom of two sleeping children last fall.

Neither the Catholic Conference, the public policy group of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archdiocese of Wilmington and Diocese of Washington, and the Maryland Jewish Alliance, the lobbying group of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. federations and Jewish agencies, testified at the hearing.

Nor was the Maryland Jewish Alliance likely to take a position on Mr. Bromwell’s bill, according to Melody McCoy McEntee, director of government relations and public policy for the Baltimore Jewish Council, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, both of which are alliance members.

“That is a tort reform bill,” she said of Mr. Bromwell’s bill. “We are trying to expend our energy on other things that prevent child abuse. It’s not an issue that is unique to the Jewish community.” She added that the alliance is supporting two House bills that deal with neglect of a child and that require reporting instances of such.

Experts in the field said that Mr. Bromwell’s bill, to extend the statute of limitations, was particularly important. Under federal law, there is no statute of limitations for the criminal prosecution of offenses involving the sexual abuse of a child.

Among states, Alaska, Delaware and Maine have no statute of limitations for victims bringing civil actions of childhood sexual abuse. Wisconsin is considering eliminating its current statute of limitations. The following states have a statute of limitations greater than seven years after the age of majority for victims of childhood sexual abuse: Connecticut (30 years), Ohio (12 years), Pennsylvania (12 years) and Wisconsin (14 years).

In the “survivor community,” said Dr. Mesa Leventhal-Baker, medical director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, “they feel left out, at a loss how to finish some of these cases or to move on. When they finally come forward, they have no legal form to do so.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the issue of child sex abuse came to attention, spurred by a number of highly publicized cases across the country. “Maryland was behind the curve but we are now seeing some improvement in the state,” she said. “But some communities, the Jewish community in particular, are still behind the times in recognizing this as an issue.”

Dr. Joyce Silberg is coordinator of the trauma services for children at Sheppard Pratt Hospital and executive vice president of the Leadership Council, a coalition of child abuse experts who promote information and education of the public and media. According to Dr. Silberg, the abuse a person undergoes is often not fully understood until adulthood.

“The triggers can be having their own kids, or their own kids reaching the age they were when they were abused,” said Dr. Silberg who, in her private practice, has seen many such examples. “These are powerful memory triggers.”

Dr. Silberg has written a chapter for a new book on sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Titled “When The Vow Breaks,” it will be published by Brandeis University Press in 2009. She interviewed several people in the Jewish community, including BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES Executive Editor Phil Jacobs.

“This is not just a Catholic issue,” she said of child sexual abuse, “and the purpose of the book is to show that.”

However, there is a difference in the legislative arena. The Catholic Church is “highly organized and centralized, so when they lobby against a bill they can be a formidable opponent,” Dr. Silberg continued. “If a rabbi is accused of this, the rabbi or his congregation might lobby against a bill but it’s not the whole Jewish religion.”

March 02, 2008 10:28 PM  

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