‘Look back’ laws worry Catholic leaders over potential sex abuse lawsuits
Nearly two decades after revelations of sexual abuse by priests were widely reported, legislators in states around the country are considering changes to laws that would give victims of child sex abuse more time to file criminal and civil complaints. Catholic leaders in those places support many of those changes—but some claim provisions in the proposed laws unfairly target private organizations and that they could open them up to lawsuits over abuse that occurred decades ago.
In New York, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a state budget before breaking for Passover and Easter this week. With backing from victims’ rights advocates and the governor, they are considering a provision in the final bill that would alter the criminal and civil statutes of limitation for sex abuse cases. Part of the measure would create a one-year window that would allow civil suits to proceed for abuse that occurred decades ago, referred to as a look-back provision.
“This extraordinary provision would force institutions to defend alleged conduct decades ago about which they have no knowledge and in which they had no role, potentially involving employees long retired, dead or infirm, based on information long lost, if it ever existed,” Dennis Poust, the director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, wrote in an email to America.
“Statutes of limitation are an essential protection of American law because they ensure that claims can be fairly adjudicated in a timely manner based on credible evidence,” Mr. Poust said.
“This extraordinary provision would force institutions to defend alleged conduct decades ago about which they have no knowledge and in which they had no role.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said enacting the one-year window would be “toxic” to the church, The Buffalo News reported on March 20. The cardinal and other New York bishops were in Albany meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers.
Other groups opposing the look-back measure include the Boy Scouts of America and leaders from the Orthodox Jewish community. Catholic leaders say they support abolishing time limits for criminal prosecution and expanding background checks for people who work with children. But they also point to an existing law that protects public institutions from “look back” lawsuits and say that it creates a double standard.
As it currently stands, people who were abused as children have until the age of 21 to sue institutions where the abuse took place. They have two additional years to sue their alleged abuser or to file criminal charges. The bill now being considered, a version of which has been debated in New York for more than a decade, would give victims until age 28 to file criminal charges and until age 50 to file civil charges. But children abused at public institutions, like schools or parks, under current law have just 90 days to notify courts that they intend to sue, a limitation not addressed in the current proposal.
“We strongly urge a change in existing law, [which] protects public institutions from lawsuits due to an absurd requirement that victims file a notice of claim with the court within 90 days or be forever time-barred,” Mr. Poust said.
Stephen Jimenez, who helped create New Yorkers Against Hidden Predators after being abused in a Catholic school, told the New York Law Journal that including the one-year window was “nonnegotiable.” A number of high-profile celebrities, including the actress Julianne Moore and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon have expressed support for the law.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the head of Child USA, told America that church leaders have protested against look-back laws for years, saying they could bankrupt dioceses and threaten social services provided by the church.
Archbishop Gregory said that the bill “represents a policy that is bad for the citizens of Georgia”
Last month, the Diocese of St. Cloud in Minnesota announced it was filing for bankruptcy after more than 70 civil suits were brought against the diocese during a three-year window that ended in 2016.
But Ms. Hamilton still believes look-back provisions can prove a net public benefit.
“A lot of victims have survivor guilt,” she said. “They feel very bad that they weren’t able to come forward in time for the statute of limitation, but they really want the world to know: Here is someone who is dangerous.”
She said some predators remain hidden because victims cannot accuse them without threats of defamation suits. “The statutes of limitation have kept them silent,” she said, adding that she believes church officials in New York fear that additional lawsuits would make public the names of previously undisclosed priests accused of abuse.
Seven states—Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming—have no statutes of limitation for felony sex crimes. In recent years, other states, including Montana and Oklahoma, have passed laws making it easier for child victims to come forward as adults.
And lawmakers are currently considering similar changes in Michigan, Connecticut and Georgia, which adjusted its statutes of limitation just two years ago to allow older adults to sue abusers. A new legislative proposal in Georgia would include a one-year window for adults to sue over abuse that happened at any time, prompting pushback from the church in Atlanta.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 2000s implemented a zero-tolerance approach to clergy sexual abuse, has come out against the measure. Similar to the one being considered in New York, it was passed by the Georgia House but faced challenges in the Senate. The Georgia legislative session ends on March 29.
Archbishop Gregory said in a statement earlier this month that the bill “represents a policy that is bad for the citizens of Georgia” and that if it becomes law, it could “drastically damage our ability to carry out the mission of the Catholic Church in the state of Georgia.”
He outlined the ways the archdiocese reaches out to victims of sexual abuse inside the church and said that “for the past two decades the Catholic Church in Georgia has had what may be the strongest safe environment program, non-profit or otherwise, in the state.”
The bill, he said, “does not protect anyone. Rather, innocent people and the organizations to which they belong will be radically impacted based on allegations against individuals who may no longer even be alive and cannot speak for themselves.”
The Boy Scouts of America also oppose the Georgia bill, though Georgia Right to Life and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board have expressed support for it.
Earlier this month, the Michigan Senate voted to give victims of child sexual abuse that occurred as far back as 1997 the standing to sue public and private institutions, to restrict government entities’ ability to claim immunity from such lawsuits and to require more people to report suspected abuse to authorities. Supporters of the legislation are motivated in part by the fallout from the crimes of Dr. Larry Nassar, who was convicted last year of sexually abusing hundreds of victims when he worked at Michigan State University and served as team doctor for Olympic athletes on the U.S.A. Gymnastics team.
The fast-tracked legislation was sent to the Michigan House for further consideration two weeks after victims of Dr. Nassar helped unveil it at the State Capitol. Measures that would extend the statute of limitations and strip the immunity defense in certain cases had received pushback from universities, schools, local governments, businesses and the Catholic Church over the broader financial implications of facing an unknown number of suits for old claims.
Another measure would eliminate the immunity defense in civil suits for entities that are negligent in the hiring, supervision or training of employees, or in cases where the governmental agency knew or should have known and failed to report sexual misconduct to law enforcement.
Catholic leaders in Michigan have said they support some elements of the proposed changes, but add they are concerned about the look-back provision. In a statement released earlier this month, the Michigan Catholic Conference described some of the bills as “dangerous public policy that will do nothing to protect children today but rather subject a vast portion of the State of Michigan to currently barred civil actions.”
Other opponents to Michigan’s look-back provision include the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and organizations representing local governments and school districts.
The bills passed by the Michigan Senate await a hearing in the House.
Barbara Dorris, the executive director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, said in an email to America that giving victims more time to sue along with look-back laws that create special windows for older cases of abuse represent a “huge victory for innocent kids and a huge defeat for child molesters.”
“The civil window does not change the burden of proof; it simply allows older cases to move forward based on [their] merits rather than being automatically time-barred,” Ms. Dorris said. “Kids are safest when predators are jailed. But that can’t always happen. So the next best option is to expose predators. These windows allow victims to come forward and expose predators which protects children.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.