Victims of Priests’ Abuse Seeking Redress Outside Church
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday March 3, 2003
Washington Post, Mar. 3, 2003
By Alan Cooperman, Washington Post Staff Writer
LOUISVILLE — Jeff Anderson has won millions of dollars suing Roman Catholic dioceses over sexual abuse by priests, and he savors his reputation as a tough-as-nails courtroom lawyer. But in a hotel ballroom here last Saturday, he clutched a teddy bear to his chest.
“If you drop by and the legislator you want to see isn’t around, you leave one of these,” Anderson instructed about 40 amateur lobbyists from across the country. “You tell them it represents the innocence of a child — the innocence that’s been stolen — and I guarantee they’ll remember you.”
Anderson’s presentation at a conference of survivors of sexual abuse marked a pivotal moment in the scandal gripping the Catholic Church. Frustrated after months of pleas for change inside the church, the victims’ movement is shifting tactics and applying pressure primarily from the outside by lobbying state legislators and assisting grand jury investigations.
“In the past, survivors always tried to force changes from within,” said Susan Archibald, president of the Linkup, a victims’ support group that gathered here for its 11th annual meeting. “But at the end of last year, we were still disappointed by the level of transparency and accountability accepted by the bishops. So we decided to fight from another direction.”
The most visible results are battles in many states, including Maryland and Virginia, over bills to extend statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse and to require clergy to report abuse to police. Less publicly, but just as energetically, victims have testified before about 15 grand juries across the country and are prodding prosecutors to lay out evidence not only about abusive priests, but also about the supervisory role of bishops.
A Maryland legislative committee Friday killed a bill that would have required priests to report child sexual abuse even if they learned about it in the confessional. A Virginia bill that would have added clergy to the list of “mandated reporters” — professions whose members must quickly inform civil authorities about any credible allegation of child abuse — also died in committee in February, though it exempted information obtained in the confessional.
Victims testified on behalf of both bills, and they are the driving force behind most of the legislative proposals across the country. They have won significant victories in several states. Most notably, in California they teamed up with plaintiffs’ attorneys last fall to gain a one-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits over child sexual abuse, no matter how long ago it occurred.
Using California as a model, survivors’ groups are lobbying for similar windows in Florida, New York, Minnesota, Missouri and other states. Despite the involvement of plaintiffs’ lawyers, they say it is a grass-roots campaign built on personal appeals to lawmakers, without professional lobbyists or a national war chest — even for $5 teddy bears.
They also are urging legislatures to abolish, or at least extend, time limits on prosecution of child sexual abusers. These statutes typically require prosecutors to file charges within five, seven or 10 years after the victim turns 18 or, in some states, 16. Proposals to extend the time limits have been filed in about a dozen states, from Pennsylvania to Hawaii.
California’s bishops made no attempt to block the one-year window for civil lawsuits there. But more recently, survivors’ groups have run into fierce opposition, particularly to bills that would impinge on the secrecy of the confessional. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington declared last week that he would rather go to prison than violate that long-standing church policy, and some leaders of the survivors’ movement have concluded that pushing such bills was a tactical mistake.
In some statehouses, church lobbyists also are battling against extending statutes of limitations and allowing lawsuits based on the repressed memories of victims. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops have taken no position, leaving the matter up to Catholic leaders in each state.
Dick Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said he is fighting a bill that would give victims until age 33, instead of the current 21, to file claims for damages.
“Bad things, awful things, were done. But after time, witnesses disappear and die, and evidence fades, and so do memories,” he said. “Why should we extend the statute of limitations for this crime and not for other crimes, like rape?”
Dowling portrayed the church as fighting a lonely battle.
“The insurance companies . . . don’t want to oppose these bills, because they don’t want people to say insurance agents are in favor of child abuse,” he said. “It’s the same with school boards, day-care centers and almost all the groups that naturally ought to oppose this.”
The match-up looks different from the other side. Tom Riner, a Kentucky state legislator who has worked closely with victims’ groups, said their biggest obstacle often is finding a bill sponsor “who’s willing to challenge the legislative leadership . . . and ready not to come back” for another term.
“Some of you need to begin to think right now about running for office,” he told the victims here. “Because you can search the woods and not find anybody who’s got the fire to do this.”
Outside the legislative arena, victims have appeared before grand juries in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, Missouri, South Carolina, Maryland and New York.
These proceedings are closed to the public. Thus, they tend to garner little attention until they erupt with indictments or reports — as happened last month in the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island and may occur this week in Concord, N.H., where prosecutors are set to release 9,000 pages of documents.
Most of the grand juries are considering indictments against individual priests, but victims said they believe that prosecutors in Boston, Los Angeles and Phoenix are gathering evidence about the handling of abusers by bishops. No bishop has been indicted for failing to prevent sexual abuse or covering it up.
Although many juries are looking at church documents, victims are “critical” to their efforts, said St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, who is running a grand jury probe that has indicted two priests. Unlike many other crimes, she said, “we don’t know about these cases unless the victim tells us about them.”
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that in the past, victims focused on their own lawsuits and often did not bother to file police reports or speak to prosecutors if the statute of limitations on criminal charges had elapsed.
“But more and more now,” he said, “survivors are filing reports and prodding prosecutors, because you never know whether or when prosecutors will get involved.”
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