Sometimes the smallest legal technicalities can have the biggest consequences.

A “statute of limitations,” as every beginning law student knows, is a law that bars people from bringing a lawsuit for old or stale claims. The reasons for this are obvious and well-grounded in common legal sense. The older a claim is, the harder it is to gather relevant documents and evidence, the memory of witnesses may have faded, or they may be deceased, and it becomes more difficult to either prove or defend against claims. Further, having a statute of limitations allows companies and individuals to take advantage of what the common law terms “repose.” That is, knowing that some claims will not be brought because they have passed the proper time allows people to plan for their future, so they will not be surprised by lawsuits claiming damages from conduct that may be years or decades old. In the Anglo-American common law tradition, almost every claim — criminal and civil — has a statute of limitations.

Yet sometimes emotion and a desire to cure an injustice overwhelm common sense. Several states have passed or are considering laws to end any limitation on when victims of abuse can bring claims against the Church. New York, for example, has had several bills proposed in the last few legislative sessions. Another version, which opens for one year the limitations period — which would allow plaintiffs to bring cases long since out of time — is currently circulating.

Enacting such a law is a serious mistake, although an understandable one. The mistake rests in confusing vengeance with justice. Vengeance is an emotion caused by a wrong being done. It seeks to extract payment from whomever one can; if not the perpetrator, then others who may be identified with the perpetrator. Justice, on the other hand, requires that benefits or punishments be distributed based on what the philosopher Aristotle called “desert,” or merit. Only those who deserve punishment should receive it, and only in proportion to their liability.

In the abuse cases brought against dioceses, the just apportionment of punishment is sometimes hard to see. Dioceses have had to sell properties, reduce services provided to the needy, and restrict other activities to pay for settlements; meanwhile, the laity are asked to contribute more to make up the difference. In other words, the wrongdoers are not paying, or are not alone in paying, for their crimes; instead, normal parishioners are substituted — and paying for conduct with which they had no involvement.

More seriously, people who rely on the Catholic Church’s help today are being deprived of that help. The effects have been hard to quantify, but they are undeniable. The closure of schools, old-age homes, and other facilities and services in dioceses across the nation are testament to the effects of the settlements for old conduct that otherwise could not have been brought.

The consequences of these laws have been disastrous. In 2003, California ended the limitations period for abuse cases for one year, opening up hundreds of decades-old cases and threatening many dioceses with bankruptcies as they paid hundreds of millions in settlements. It is likely that New York dioceses will face the same fate if such a law is allowed to pass. Moreover, during the past few years as such laws are proposed, the Church’s ability to plan for the future is hindered, exactly the result statutes of limitations are supposed to prevent.

Some might say good riddance; the Church should be punished for assisting such terrible crimes. There is some merit in this remark, and the effects of what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus calls the Church’s “Long Lent” will continue for many years, including diminished respect for priests and bishops. It will, one hopes, lead to the emergence of a properly penitent and scrupulously orthodox Church leadership.

However, the Church should not be exempted from protections the law grants others simply because it is wrongly considered a deep pocket. Here the money from which judgments have been or will be paid are contributions from people who had nothing to do with the acts alleged. It is not as if the money being paid by the diocese is the property of the individual bishop, or even the abuser. It is instead the property of the current parishioners and the Church as a whole.

This is not, of course, an excuse for abuse. Ending or extending a criminal statute of limitations, rather than the civil one, makes more sense as a proper balance of interests. In that way, victims can still bring the power of the state and the courts to bear on abusers, who are, in the end, the ones deserving punishment. Moreover, other kinds of civil remedies can be designed to help the Church deal with these issues in the future. Nor is this an argument for prohibiting any money judgments against the Church for abuse; if such crimes occur within the limitations period, the Church should not be treated differently than any other defendant.

But bankrupting future generations of Catholics by exempting the Church from a centuries-old protection is not the answer. Catholic legislators faced with such laws should be more principled — and creative — in finding justice.

Gerald J. Russello writes often on legal issues for the

National Catholic Register.