Virginia advocates for victims of childhood sexual assault blast Catholic Church for opposing bills
UPDATED: 10:15 a.m.
A group of bills that would target pedophiles' pocketbooks has advanced as a Northern Virginia Democrat warned that the General Assembly might be rushing them through, driven more by emotion than by a thorough consideration of the consequences.
"This is a very sensitive issue, and few people have the guts to speak out," Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) said.
Advocates for childhood victims of sexual assault, including several who were victimized by clergy, have backed bills that would expand the existing statute of limitations for civil lawsuits, allowing a childhood victim of sexual assault to sue the abuser up to 25 years after the event, after the victim turns 18 years old, or after the discovery of the abuse, perhaps because of a recovered memory.
Those periods have been reduced to 20 years in a Senate bill and eight years in a House measure. Under current law, the statute of limitations allows victims to bring a lawsuit within two years after the event, after becoming an adult or after the discovery of prior abuse.
Petersen said he thinks 20 years is still too much time; he has concerns about eight years also.
"When you have a statute of limitations of 20 years, defendants are basically left defenseless," Petersen said Monday. "You could be hit with a civil suit 30 years after the incident."
Petersen, who as an attorney has represented both the victims and the accused, said allowing people such a long period of time opened the legal system to mistaken allegations because of lapsed memories or even fabrications.
Petersen said the bills could also have negative effects on the Boy Scouts, Little Leagues, nonprofits and other groups that conduct programs for children by driving up their liability insurance premiums.
"The whole thing is just very troubling to me, and I think the Assembly has spent zero time looking at the what this will cost small organizations in insurance," Petersen said.
He also took a slap -- not by name -- at an advocate who had strongly criticized the Catholic church's lobbying. "I didn't feel it was appropriate to criticize a church group for participating because everybody can participate," Petersen said.
Last week, a group of adult victims who suffered sexual abuse as children strongly criticized the Catholic Church over its resistance to extending the statute of limitations.
Among the advocates pushing the bill was Becky Ianni, 53, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She told of being abused by Monsignor William T. Reinecke when she was a girl in Alexandria.
"All the parents loved and trusted him. I loved and trusted him," Ianni told reporters. When the abuse started, she said, she buried the experience deep in her mind until her memory, triggered by a photograph of the priest, unearthed it 40 years later. Reinecke, confronted by another victim, committed suicide in 1992.
As originally filed, bills sponsored by Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) and Sen. Frederick M. Quayle (R-Chesapeake) would allow victims to sue their abusers up to 25 years later. Victims argue that the longer time frame is warranted because many children repress memories of the abuse and do not report or acknowledge the experience until years, or decades, later.
They also said the church should be held accountable for instances of gross negligence. One victim at the press conference, for example, told of suffering sexual abuse from a priest who had violated children elsewhere. The priest legally changed his name at the church's urging, however, and the church relocated him from New Jersey to a parish in Virginia where he abused children again.
Camille Cooper, legislative director for National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT), said a House panel reduced the period after the Catholic church's lobbyist in Richmond spoke against them. She also said during the press conference that she hoped opponents would "find God" and drop their opposition to the bills.
Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, said he remembers the events in the House panel differently and offered some context for the church's position.
"We think Virginia's policy must be fair and just to victims. There is profound regret whenever child abuse occurs in any situation," Caruso said. He also said the church has "very strong, longstanding protections in place."
As for the statute of limitations, he said that even under current law, a 45-year-old person who suffered abuse at the age of 10 and suddenly recovered a memory of the events could wait until he or she was 47 years old before filing suit, thereby forcing the accused to counter allegations that are 37 years old. Extending the time frame to 25 years means that this same victim could be 70 years old before filing suit concerning events that occurred 60 years in the past.
Caruso said the church would support "a reasonable extension of the current limits" in line with other jurisdictions. Counting all 50 states and the District of Columbia, he said 40 jurisdictions have limits of eight years or less. Thirty-one of the 51 have two- to five-year limits in their statutes of limitation, Caruso said.
This week, the Senate Courts of Justice committee sent on Quayle's amended bill with a 20-year limit, SB1145. The vote was 13-2, with Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) joining Petersen in voting "nay." Albo's bill, HB1476, which would allow up to eight years to take legal action, passed the House unanimously.
| February 1, 2011; 10:15 AM ET
Categories: Creigh Deeds, General Assembly 2011
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