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The Need to Amend Statutes of Limitation

The heads of some very powerful corporations, the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in America, are at it again. They are doing their best to silence survivors of childhood sexual abuse. They are doing it by spending charitable contributions raised in the pews to lobby state legislatures to deny adults, raped and molested as children, their day in court. Publicly, they make statements accepting responsibility for the scourge within their institutions. But in the hallways of state capitals and the private offices of lawmakers, they demand that the courthouse door be shut on survivors, quickly, tightly, and forever.

As a matter of review, many of the chief officers of prominent youth-serving corporations all across this nation, otherwise known as diocesan bishops, allowed men they knew to have a history as rapists and child molesters to continue to have jobs providing them access to children. While facing substantial media pressure in 2002, these corporate officials issued a response through their trade association, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), admitting that what they had done, and what they had failed to do, contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and church personnel.

USCCB’s president, Bishop Wilton Gregory stated that a confession, by the bishops, was in order. He went on at length as follows:

“We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or God forbid with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse. We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities because the law did not require this. We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of a scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse. And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the Church.”

Bishop Gregory was correct. These corporations and their officers are responsible for the scourge within their institutions. That fact has been confirmed in reports by grand juries and attorneys general in several of the states.

In subsequent years, the confession has proven to be mere words, more of a public relations ploy than evidence of any change in the behavior of the corporate officers. The bishops have moved on from that moment, and despite admitting culpability, have put forth a monumental effort to block the reform of statutes of limitation. Reforms that would make the responsible parties pay for their misdeeds.

A statute of limitations is a legal limitation on the amount of time in which a criminal or civil case may be brought. After that time has run, the case is barred. Thus the people both criminally and civilly responsible can escape accountability only because a certain period of time has passed. Even in cases of childhood sexual abuse, once the statute of limitations has run, the courts lack the power to hold even the most heinous of defendants accountable. It is a harsh moment when a survivor loses access to the courts. In that circumstance, the survivor, his family, his employer, and society at large are left to pay for the damage. We recently discussed these costs in a blog article found here.

Society, however, has a remedy. While it has been held unconstitutional to revive lapsed criminal cases through amendments to statutes of limitation, the United States Supreme Court has declared that lapsed civil claims may be revived by state legislatures through such amendments. Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 267 (1994). Thus it is possible to hold those responsible for childhood sexual abuse accountable in civil court despite the passage of time This is important because, in many cases, the psychological injury or illness suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse does not become manifest to the survivor until well into adult years.

In many states, the bishops have a problem, because they or a predecessor executive knew or should have known of agents who were engaged in child sexual abuse. Abuse that, as they admitted in 2002, occurred because of what an executive did or failed to do regarding the safety of children. That circumstance combined with a growing awareness of abuse in youth-serving organizations generally, including the Boy Scouts who over the course of the last year have faced the release of documents evidencing widespread culpability in childhood sexual abuse, is leading legislatures across the nation to consider amending civil statutes of limitations

What is at issue is the ability to hold people and institutions responsible for criminal behavior at or near the onset of resulting psychological illness or injury. Despite the public cries of the bishops, the so-called “good works” of the church are not threatened in any meaningful way by such accountability. Catholic Charities, a highly successful public relations program that directs and/or delivers the “good works” of the Roman Catholic Church in America, is funded primarily through government contracts and grants.

The battle to promote justice through amendments of civil statutes of limitations is on and it is time to hold these criminal enterprises responsible for the full measure of the damage they caused.