Church Vs. Clock

Child-abuse victims are given many years to press charges. They're saying they need more.
by | November 2006

Forget Congress for a moment. The institution that has been damaged most by child sex-abuse scandals in recent years is the Roman Catholic Church. It has mandated numerous reporting and prevention programs to control any further problems in its dioceses. It continues to lobby, however, against legislation that would give alleged victims an additional opportunity to report crimes that date back to their childhoods.

About a dozen states considered bills this year that not only would have extended the statute of limitations for sex-abuse crimes but would have opened up a one-year "lookback" window for victims to bring forward complaints about instances of abuse for which the time limit has already expired. Sponsors argued that children victimized by trusted authority figures might take many years to summon the will to come forward.

With legal settlements having cost the church $467 million in 2005 alone, Catholic bishops decided to fight hard against the proposed changes. They have prevailed in just about every case. "People have been hurt, there's no question, but our society has been in favor of statutes of limitations," says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The simple fact is that people's memories fade, they change."

Victims of clergy abuse say that one reason they have been able to prevail in many suits is that they don't have to rely on shaky memories alone. The church itself keeps extensive files on its staff and schools, making it easy for prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys to find evidence and corroborating witnesses. "Bishops are safe as long as they can prevent having to go to open court and confess under oath how much they knew and how little they did about these abusive priests," says Daniel Clohessy, national director of the Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests.

In fighting the statute extensions, the bishops used some classic hardball lobbying strategies. They hired top legal and public relations firms to put their message across and joined forces with an insurance industry that has had to shell out most of the money in church abuse settlements. "It was a very intense type of lobbying," says Colorado state Representative Gwyn Green. "What offended me were these personal attacks from my own bishop."

In fact, though, the church has a point. There are reasons for statute of limitation laws, including the unreliability of decades-old memory and the difficulty of mounting a defense in cases where the events transpired many years ago. And changing the rules after the clock has run out strikes many as especially unfair. The U.S. Supreme Court has already tossed out one state law--from California--that allowed charges to be brought in sex-abuse cases where the statute of limitations had expired. "Part of the bishops' argument is unquestionably valid," says Wayne LaFave, a University of Illinois law professor. "Indeed, so valid that if such a law is enacted, it will promptly be found unconstitutional."