National Catholic Register

News

Suspending Fairness?

N.Y. Catholics Worried About Statute of Limitations Bill

BY STEPHEN VINCENT

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

April 5-11, 2009 Issue | Posted 3/27/09 at 2:30 PM

 

ALBANY, N.Y. — A bill in the New York state Legislature suspending the statute of limitations for sex-abuse claims could “bankrupt” the Church, said a spokesman for the state’s bishops.

The bill had been voted down the past three years, but now has a chance of passing in a Democratic-dominated Legislature. Gov. David Paterson has expressed support.

Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, said the bill is unfair in its application to private and public institutions and would open the window for charges to be brought against priests for incidents that may have happened 50 to 60 years ago.

“The Catholic Church wants to help any victim of sexual abuse, and we would support a bill that did that in a fair and just manner,” Poust told the Register. “But this bill is really designed to bankrupt us, because it would be almost impossible to defend against charges from so long ago.”

Democrat Margaret Markey, sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, said in a statement, “First and foremost, this bill is about victims of sexual abuse. Victims of these horrific crimes will get their day in court and be able to seek the justice they have been denied. It will also protect children in the future by exposing perpetrators who continue to be employed by private organizations and institutions, thereby preventing future abuse.”

A similar law in California led dioceses there to pay out close to $1 billion to victims, with many of the cases ending in a settlement before trial. In Delaware, many claims have been brought against the Church during the one-year period for bringing old claims that will soon end.

The Church in New York is not the only group calling foul over the proposed bill. The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society have voiced opposition, pointing out that it would be unfair for sex-abuse claims to be brought up after 50 or 60 years, when the accused may be dead, evidence may be lacking, and witnesses may not be available. Jewish institutions have also raised objections.

Some state lawmakers and legal experts point out that the bill unfairly targets private institutions and employees, while exempting public employees, such as public school teachers, from equal scrutiny. Present state law allows civil charges to be brought against private individuals or institutions for up to five years after the victim of a sexual offense turns 18 years old. Yet similar claims against public employees or institutions must be made within 90 days.

The bill would suspend the statute of limitations for one year only for private persons and institutions, while leaving intact the brief 90-day window for public ones. After the one-year window is closed, the bill would extend the statute of limitations to 10 years, giving victims until age 28 to report alleged abuse.

One lawmaker objecting to the disparate treatment of private and public entities is Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, sponsor of another bill that would extend the statute of limitations for claims against both private and public entities but not suspend limitations for one year. If the sponsors of the other bill were really interested in seeking justice for victims, they would treat public employees the same, since sexual abuse is higher in public schools than in Catholic institutions, said Debra Feinberg, a legal assistant for Lopez.

“We all are aware of the heinous nature of sexual abuse of minors, but we have to help in a way that promotes justice,” Feinberg said. “Assemblyman Lopez’s bill is designed to level the playing field.”

Feinberg also said that suspending the statute of limitations would be unfair. “Evidence is important; witnesses are important. We have to protect the judicial system and the accused, as well.”

Markey said that public schools have handled abuse cases well in recent years, whereas the Catholic hierarchy “has relied on secrecy, quiet transfers and threats to hide abusers when the threat of public disclosure emerges.”

But an Associated Press investigation in 2007 identified 2,570 public school teachers who, from 2001 through 2005, had their teaching licenses “taken away, denied, surrendered voluntarily, or restricted” as a result of sexual misconduct with minors. In that same time period, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identified 15 allegations of abuse in the Church.

Poust said that the bishops would support an extension of the statute of limitations by five or more years, but not a complete suspension of it for a year.

“That would encourage people to file accusations that would be very difficult to defend against,” Poust said. “You may successfully litigate the first 20, and then get hit with a $50-million judgment. This was the situation they faced in California, where they settled a lot of claims, regardless of the strength of the case.”

Stephen Vincent writes

from Wallingford, Connecticut.


(A longer version of this article appeared on the Daily Blog at NCRegister.com on March 24.)