Victims' Advocates Argue Bill Must Be Retroactive

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times
January 24, 2003

OLYMPIA — Saying there is no time limit on the damage inflicted by abuse, dozens of victims and their advocates testified before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, urging legislators to make retroactive a bill that would eliminate civil statutes of limitation on childhood sexual abuse.

"These crimes don't disappear," said Suzanne Brown, executive director of Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, which represents 41 rape crisis centers. "The harm does not disappear with the passage of time."

House Bill 1040, introduced by Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, would end the time limits on suing people and institutions alleging sexual abuse of minors. The bill's language is vague on whether it would apply to both past and future cases. O'Brien said yesterday he had submitted an amendment clarifying that it is intended to apply only to alleged incidents that occur after the bill takes effect.

That has ignited a firestorm among victims' advocates, who argue that the bill must also be retroactive.

"This legislation will help those in the future but doesn't do anything to help the victims who are currently facing the reality of their abuse and who've been abused in the past," said Jim Biteman, a leader of the Puget Sound chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Biteman has a lawsuit pending against the Catholic Diocese of Spokane alleging long-ago abuse by a priest who had worked there.

The bill was spurred, in part, by the sexual-abuse scandal that erupted in the church last year.

O'Brien said yesterday that some in the Catholic Church had talked to him, arguing against a retroactive bill.

"If we made it retroactive, there'd be lawsuits galore," O'Brien said. Those church members — O'Brien would not specify who — had told him such suits "would do serious harm to the church," he said.

The abuse of minors by clergy and the cover-up of abuse by the hierarchy "just galls me," O'Brien said. But the church "would go out of business" if there were no time limits on lawsuits claiming past abuses.

"The church does a lot of good things.," he said. "When you put them out of business, there's a lot they can't do for the public that absolutely needs to be done."

O'Brien says his bill would still "put organizations on notice that this conduct is not going to be tolerated anymore."

Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops on matters of public policy, said representatives of the organization did talk to O'Brien, saying they would support a prospective but not retroactive bill. No one representing the Catholic Conference spoke to O'Brien lobbying against retroactivity based on the prospect of lawsuits or financial damage to the church, Park said.

"The major reason we have for making it prospective is it's very difficult to get the facts ... for cases that are 10 to 15 years old," Park said.

The church is committed to offering care and services for victims of clergy abuse, she said. But "if you're going to talk about justice, which is what the law is all about, you have to get all the facts."

Seattle Archdiocese spokeswoman Jackie O'Ryan said nobody representing the archdiocese talked to O'Brien about possible lawsuits or financial fallout from a retroactive bill.

David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, characterized talk of a potential flood of lawsuits as "a red herring that (church officials) toss out again and again."

Ninety percent of the 4,400 members of SNAP nationwide have never and will never sue, said Clohessy, who was in town to help push for a retroactive and prospective bill, and to visit members of two newly formed state SNAP chapters.

But in California, where a law took effect this month that temporarily lifts the state's statutes of limitation for lawsuits claiming sex abuse, hundreds of lawsuits are being prepared.

Marilyn McEvoy, a Puyallup resident, testified yesterday that having legal recourse is important to victims no matter when the abuse occurred. McEvoy, who said her daughter was sexually abused for years as a minor by a relative decades ago, wants abusers to at least pay for victim counseling.

"There is no recourse she has to help her get better," McEvoy said of her daughter. "These children who have been abused have a life sentence."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272.


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