Committee Votes to Expand Sex-Crime Reporting Requirements

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services, carried in Arizona Daily Sun [Phoenix AZ]
February 27, 2003

PHOENIX -- Hoping to catch more sex offenders, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to expand the requirements of who needs to report suspected cases of abuse.

And among the first people who could be affected by the new laws are church officials who would be required to tell police what they know or at least reasonably suspect about the actions of the members of the clergy they direct.

The legislation was actually one of two bills approved Wednesday designed to deal with the problem of abuse and assault. Lawmakers also voted to give victims who are traumatized more time to file civil claims against their attackers and those who shield them.

That vote came after Sharon Roy testified about how she was raped as an adult in 1978 by the Rev. Patrick Colleary and ended up fathering a child by him. Confused and considering suicide, she told lawmakers, it took years of therapy to get her to the point where she could confront the priest and the Catholic Church in court -- an option that state law legally precludes because she waited too long.

Rachael Mitchell who prosecutes sex crimes for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office said the change in the reporting law is designed to plug loopholes. The biggest, she said, is that only people who actually have seen the abuse or been told about it by the victim have to call police.

The problem with that, said Mitchell, is other people may know what is going on.

Jerry Landau, a special assistant Maricopa County attorney, said under current law if a parent comes to a church official and says his or her child is being molested by a priest, there is no legal requirement for the official to then inform police. That is because the official had not actually seen any abuse nor been informed of it by the victim.

Landau said the fact that "there might be half a dozen people telling them" of a problem does not change that.

The new law mandates a report be made if the person "reasonably believes" abuse or assault had occurred.

He said the law does not override the priest-penitent privilege which protects members of the clergy from having to disclose what is told to them in confession or similar conversations.

That is because the parent is going to the church official not to confess or seek counseling for personal acts.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley has been in a running battle with the Catholic Church over whether they are providing information about priests who are pedophiles.

"The bill is not aimed at a particular discipline or a particular case," Landau said. "The incidents with the Catholic Church have caused us to look at the current law and see if it fits the public policy needs of our society, if it fits the needs of our citizens."

The measure, SB 1352, also boosts the penalty for failing to report from a misdemeanor to a felony which can bring a year in state prison.

The other bill stems from the legal requirement that people who want to sue for personal injury must file legal papers within two years of the incident. The only exception is where the victim is either under age 18 or is of "unsound mind," meaning legally insane.

SB 1286 expands the exception to include people who have a "psychological impairment" that prevents the victim from understanding or acting on his or her legal rights.

The legislation also says that lawsuits by sex abuse victims can be filed at any time after a perpetrator is found guilty of criminal charges.

Roy said the trauma of her 1978 attack and pregnancy left her psychologically unable to consider her legal options within the two-year statute of limitations.

"I was extremely confused wondering what I had done to cause a priest to do such a thing," she said. Colleary has acknowledged having sex with Roy and fathering the child but said the relationship was consensual.

Roy said she could not get anywhere with church officials and finally contacted Bishop Thomas O'Brien in 1993, also getting no satisfaction. She told lawmakers she finally is ready to confront Colleary and the church in court after years in therapy.

The legislation drew fire from Jack LaSota who represents the School Risk Retention Trust, a self-insurance fund for school districts. He said the change would result in a flood of new lawsuits.

Both measures now go to the full Senate.

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