Law on Clergy Sex Abuse Hit
Group: State's in 'Shameful Situation'

By Pat Schneider
The Capital Times [Madison WI]
January 30, 2003

Clergy child molesters go free in Wisconsin because state law lets them, members of a national sex abuse survivor group said Wednesday at the State Capitol.

"Wisconsin is in a very shameful situation," said Peter Isely, a member of the national board of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Accompanied by newly hired lobbyist Michael Bright, the group met with lawmakers crafting legislation to give sexual abuse victims better access to the courts.

1995 state Supreme Court decision established a constitutional church-state barrier, perhaps the highest in the country, to civil judgments against churches for failing to supervise their clergy.

The state also has a shorter period during which civil and criminal complaints can be filed after the alleged abuse occurs. Complaints of sexual abuse of children have been raised against scores of clergy members in Wisconsin over the past year, but most of the incidents occurred so long ago that criminal prosecution is not allowed.

Rep. Peggy Krusick, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, are drafting legislation designed to open the courthouse doors to victims of clergy abuse.

As now written, the proposed law would allow victims to sue religious organizations that should have known that a clergy member had previous sexual contact with a minor and did not try to prevent it from happening again.

The draft legislation also would add clergy to the list of professionals required to report suspected child abuse and would extend the statute of limitations for criminal and civil complaints.

SNAP members would like to see the deadline for bringing complaints eliminated, because sex abuse victims typically need years to recognize the significance of and speak out about what happened.

"A statute that doesn't reflect the dynamic of the crime is not helpful to victims," Isely said.

Bright, who has represented such clients as Midwest Airlines and Commonwealth Edison, said public awareness is building momentum for changes in the law.

"The law can be changed to reverse three or four decades of quiet abuse," Bright said.

The Catholic Conference, the lobbying organization of Wisconsin bishops, has raised concerns about each part of the proposed legislation.

Krusick said she proposed an end to the statute of limitations a decade ago. What passed were two amendments in the years since that incrementally extended the period during which complaints of sexual abuse can be filed.

"Child sexual abuse is a horrific crime," Krusick said. "Our goal is to build consensus for a bill that will protect children from abuse and provide justice to the abused."

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