Editorial: Tweaking Abuse Legislation

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
January 26, 2003

Local members of a clergy sexual-abuse victims group are expected to meet soon with state Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee) and state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) regarding legislation that will try to provide a greater measure of justice for victims. The legislators should listen closely to what the victims have to say.

Darling and Krusick have drafted a bill that would require mandatory reporting by clergy of suspected cases of sexual abuse of minors, extend the statute of limitations in such cases and allow victims to sue churches for the actions of their clergy. The measures should win widespread support and passage - but they also should be tweaked.

On the statute of limitations, for example, some victims would like to see no limits; others a greatly extended limit, perhaps to age 48. The legislation would extend limits to 26 and 35 for civil and criminal charges.

What strikes us as a reasonable compromise is a window of, say, a year during which any victim could file suit regardless of his or her age or how long ago the abuse occurred. A window was approved in California, and makes even more sense in Wisconsin because of a 1995 state Supreme Court decision that effectively cut off lawsuits against churches, leaving victims with little recourse.

While the ruling would be corrected by the Krusick-Darling legislation, many of the victims denied justice by the 1995 decision will continue to be denied justice. That's because they've gotten older and the statute of limitations, which is based on the age of the victims, will bar them from filing suit. They deserve a second chance; a one-year window would give it to them.

Such a window could have the added benefit of increasing pressure on churches to move more swiftly and seriously to mediate cases with victims, as has happened in California. Faced with the prospect of additional lawsuits, churches quickly become more interested in mediation.

The language concerning mandatory reporting also could use some adjustment. The draft legislation would exempt confessions and "pastoral communications." The latter phrase must be carefully defined. If it is left too broad, any conversation between clergy could be construed as pastoral communications, rendering the reporting requirement almost meaningless.

Clergy have been notoriously reluctant to report colleagues. If mandatory reporting legislation is to do any good in providing protection for children, it must put some real pressure on clergy to report what they suspect. Too loose a definition of pastoral communications won't provide it.

One more thing the Krusick-Darling legislative package could use is the unequivocal support of church leaders such as Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan. For too many years, the Catholic Church tried to dodge and weave its way out of the clergy abuse scandal. To his credit, Dolan has taken several steps that indicate he is more interested in accountability than in artful dodging (although a current standoff in a local mediation effort, not entirely the archbishop's fault, is troubling).

Supporting this legislation would be one more positive step.

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