Trouble is brewing in New York:

Roman Catholic and Orthodox Jewish officials in New York are mounting an intense lobbying effort to block a bill before the State Legislature that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations for lawsuits alleging the sexual abuse of children.

A perennial proposal that has been quashed in past years by Republicans who controlled the State Senate, the bill is now widely supported by the new Democratic majority in that chamber, and for the first time is given a good chance of passing.

If signed by Gov. David A. Paterson, a longtime supporter, the bill would at minimum revive hundreds of claims filed in recent years against Catholic priests and dioceses in New York, but dismissed because they were made after the current time limit, which is five years after the accuser turns 18. Similar legislation has passed in Delaware and in California, where a 2003 law led to claims that have cost the church an estimated $800 million to $1 billion in damages and settlements.

Last month, L. Martin Nussbaum and Melissa Musick Nussbaum, reviewing Marci A. Hamilton’s Justice Denied , argued the importance of statutes of limitations and the problems created when removing them:

There are many good reasons that statutes of limitation exist, and getting to court before “evidence is lost or stale” is surely one. Because sexual abuse is an act of darkness and secrecy, it often occurs hidden from sight. Such acts are hard to prove or disprove. Reliable evidence is crucial to uncovering, stopping, and punishing child abusers. The more institutions and individuals are encouraged to act promptly to report abuse, the greater the chance the abuser will be apprehended and convicted. Nearly every child-abuse-reporting statute mandates immediate reporting because prompt reporting leads to persuasive evidence, arrests, and prison sentences.

Furthermore, statutes of limitation protect the falsely accused. In his 2004 sworn declaration filed in the Melanie H. case, Msgr. Craig A. Cox, vicar for clergy for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, testified that Hamilton’s “window bill” enacted by the 2002 California State Assembly resulted in 760 individuals suing the archdiocese. Many of these claims allegedly involved one of the sixty-eight priests who had died before the claims were brought . . . .

Statutes of limitation protect innocent future generations. When window legislation is proposed for either public or private institutions, the liability—the cost—falls on someone other than the abuser. In the case of public schools, the financial impact falls not on the molesting teacher but on the later students who suffer budget cuts and citizens who pay higher taxes. In the case of churches, the financial impact falls not on the priest perpetrator, often long dead, but on churchgoers who must tithe, not to support ministry, but to support the plaintiff lawyers’ forty-percent cut.

What of the small child who is abused and, afraid to tell, keeps her terrible secret? Is she barred from bringing a claim against her accuser when she finds the strength to do so? Current statutes of limitation already protect her right to bring a delayed claim through minority tolling provisions.

These points are all good, but there’s one more that the Nussbaums’ make that I find especially persuasive. If this bill were truly about seeking justice and protecting children from abuse—and not about bankrupting the Catholic church—why don’t legislators consider lifting the statutes for all allegations?

In Child Maltreatment 2006 , a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we’re told that around 66 percent of those who sexually abuse children are parents, other relatives, unmarried partners of parents, friends, or neighbors, and that only 0.5 percent are “professionals.” And clergy are a subset of “professionals,” and Catholic priests are a subset of clergy. Neither Child Maltreatment 2006 nor any other study identifies clergy (much less Catholic priests) as a statistically significant class of perpetrators. Statistically insignificant and taken from years and decades past, cases of abuse involving Catholic clergy—though profoundly troubling—are nonetheless few compared to the cases involving, for example, public-school teachers.

Thus, for example, in both actual numbers and percentages, sexual abuse of children by teachers, coaches, and employees in public schools exceeds anything that occurred in Catholic institutions. Furthermore, in contrast to Catholic institutions, sexual abuse of children in public schools is still occurring in significant numbers. Prof. Carol Shakeshaft, an expert cited by Hamilton, told Education Week, “So we think the Catholic Church has a problem? . . . The physical sexual abuse of students in [public] schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”

The difference between the problem in the Catholic Church and the continuing problem in public schools is likely greater than that. The 2007 Annual Report prepared by the Catholic bishops identifies fifteen allegations of childhood sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church from 2000 to 2007—an average of less than two per year. The 2007 Associated Press investigation identifies 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—an average of 514 per year.

Articles by Ryan Sayre Patrico

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