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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Seeking Justice for Victims of Childhood Abuse

Window of opportunity stirs controversy

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The age 35 is an important one for those who were victims of sexual assault as a child. That’s the age when they are barred from having their case heard in civil court in Wisconsin. But a new bill being debated in the state Legislature would remove that age limit— and also allow those who were currently barred from bringing charges a three-year window of opportunity to do so.

The bipartisan bill, authored by state Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) and state Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford), was debated in a state Senate committee last week, and will be debated in the state Assembly this week. Lassa said the current age limit of 35 is arbitrary and prevents many survivors from coming forward, since many are not ready to face their abusers until they are well into middle age.

“We heard from a number of victims of child sex abuse and when they felt they could come forward, they were too old to do so,” Lassa said. Lassa said that it’s important for victims to file these cases not only for their own sense of justice, but to identify perpetrators who may have abused other children.

“It’s important to find out who their abuser is, and it’s also important to know how many victims an abuser can have,” Lassa said. “Many are still abusing when they are in their 60s and 70s.” Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University who worked on constitutional issues relating to a similar law passed in California in 2002, advised Lassa on this bill. The California law opened a one-year window for survivors to file claims in civil court; Hamilton said that courts in California upheld the law “across the board.”

Hamilton said that allowing cases to be brought in court serves the public interest by identifying predators while also providing a sense of justice to the survivors.

“What the window did in California was to identify predators which we didn’t know about, roughly about 300 of them,” Hamilton. “So it not only helps victims from the past, but it also helps to prevent future abuse.”

Hamilton said that the fears of numerous frivolous lawsuits didn’t materialize. “We did not see that in California,” Hamilton said. “There were a handful of false claims, but we also learned the identity of several hundred predators.” Hamilton said that the biggest problem in California was that many survivors did not come forward in that yearlong window.

“It does not capture everyone, but it’s the best tool we have right now,” Hamilton said.

Concerns About the Fallout
Child sex abuse charges have generated innumerable headlines in recent years as allegations of Catholic clergy sexual abuse have been made public. Lassa said that the bill doesn’t target the Catholic Church, because most child sex predators are family members or friends of the family, and not members of a religious order.

“We want to hold these abusers accountable,” Lassa said. “We shouldn’t be favoring sex predators over innocent children.” Yet Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan testified against the bill in last week’s Senate hearing. Dolan said that the church has worked hard to be “a leader in how to prevent and respond to sexual abuse of minors.”

According to Dolan, those efforts include establishing an office for sexual abuse prevention and response services; providing training for parish and school staff on how to identify signs of abuse and neglect; publicly identifying all priests who have been removed from the ministry because of sexual abuse allegations; meeting with survivors; establishing a review board led by former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow; mandating criminal background checks on clergy members and employees who have contact with children; working with the district attorney on new allegations; and setting up a mediation process for survivors.

Dolan added that the cost of mediation, settlements, therapy and outreach has cost more than $17 million since 2002, and opening the church up to more lawsuits could push the church to the “brink of bankruptcy.” Dolan warned of dire consequences to the community, not just the church, if the bill is passed.

“This bill, if enacted, will do great dam- age to the one and one-half million Catholic citizens of this state,” Dolan testified. “It will kneecap or even eliminate our ministries to vulnerable and needy people. It will saddle this generation of Catholic people and the next with the inevitable loss of services and ministries caused by a radical new requirement to deal with the sins and bad judgment of past generations.”

Linda Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of Family and Children’s Agencies (WAFCA), said her organization opposes the bill because it treats public entities differently than private ones. WAFCA’s member organizations include private agencies such as Adoption Resources of Wisconsin, Aurora Family Service, Catholic Charities- Milwaukee, Jewish Family Services, La Causa, Lad Lake, and Lutheran Social Services. Hall said the bill is written so broadly that it would open up these care providers to unfair financial risk.

“Our first concern on this issue is for victims,” Hall said. “Our members provide services for them and we also work with people who have these issues. So we are very supportive of people having the chance to have their case addressed. The issue that we’re raising with this bill is one of equity, the financial effects that it could have on some of our member agencies. For public entities there is a limit of $50,000 that they would ever have to pay on a case like this. And this bill would have no limit for private entities.”

Hall said that most of the people served by these organizations have been referred by public entities; by counties, for example. “So we’re really doing the public’s work,” Hall said. “To us it seems reasonable that we should have some protections.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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