Bills on Child Sex Abuse Languish
By Rachel Zoll
U.S. National - AP [Louisville KY]
March 4, 2003
Legislation aimed at responding to the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis has failed to win quick passage in many statehouses, despite public anger over how the church handled offenders in the priesthood.
Bills in Kentucky, Iowa, Virginia and Maryland that would have made it easier to sue the church or tightened requirements for clergy to report molestation have been shelved.
Youth groups, schools, Protestant denominations and insurance companies that would be affected by the proposals are lobbying side-by-side with Catholics to amend or block some of the measures.
And lawmakers in several states, even ones particularly hard hit by the molestation crisis, are reviewing the proposals cautiously despite victims' emotional appeals for swift approval.
Victor Senior, head of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, felt his group got a fair hearing when it went before state legislators - even though 200 sex abuse lawsuits have been filed against the Louisville Archdiocese.
"They looked at it from the legal aspect," Senior said.
The same is true in states where the church supported the legislation, such as Iowa. There is concern among lawmakers about crossing the line between church and state, and bishops' new, hard line against abusers may have lessened the urgency for such measures.
Advocates still have a chance to win significant legislative changes in some places: Bills have been drafted in at least 12 states that would, among other things, extend the statute of limitations for abuse-related lawsuits. That could cost dioceses millions of dollars.
But the failures have been notable considering the church's battered reputation after more than a year of scandal.
In Iowa, a bill that would have required clergy to report abuse claims to authorities - but protected the confidentiality of the confessional - died even though the state Catholic conference supported it.
The measure was not groundbreaking: 15 states already have such laws. But some Iowa legislators feared the proposal would violate the separation of religion and government.
In Virginia, a similar bill was proposed and had the support of one of the state's Catholic bishops, as well as clergy from other denominations. It ran into opposition from lawmakers who believed the measure was an overreaction to the crisis.
A Kentucky bill would have forced clergy to report abuse even if the information was disclosed in the confessional. The Kentucky Council of Churches, which includes Protestant denominations, joined the Catholic church to oppose the idea, saying it would be a breach of religious freedom. That measure was effectively shelved, as was another that would have extended the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits.
"Trying to get the bill in proper form to get through the House and Senate really slowed the bill down," said Sue Archibald of the victim advocacy group The Linkup, based in Louisville. "We're also dealing with a tough budget in Kentucky and that has been a focus."
Activists had reason to be hopeful the bills they supported would pass this legislative session.
As the crisis developed last year, legislatures in Colorado, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where the scandal erupted, quickly toughened laws on child sex abuse in response to dioceses' wrongdoing.
California passed legislation that victims hoped would be a model in other states: Starting Jan. 1, the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in sex abuse cases was lifted for one year.
Two New York grand juries that investigated how their local dioceses handled abusive priests also called for changes in state laws that would give authorities more time to prosecute offenders.
"The problem is now burned onto the public consciousness," said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has represented hundreds of victims and is lobbying for changes in state laws. "Lawmakers now are aware of how serious this problem is. Everybody, Catholic and non-Catholic, agrees that we have done a poor job of protecting our children."
But obstacles remain, as a bill in Washington state demonstrates.
State Rep. Al O'Brien, a former police officer, was moved by victims' stories to propose abolishing the statute of limitations for abuse lawsuits.
As soon as he introduced the bill, he said, lobbyists from the church, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and state agencies began urging him and other lawmakers to amend the measure, saying it would bankrupt institutions that serve children. As a result, the legislation was scaled back to apply mainly to abuse cases in the future, he said.
"Initially, there was a lot of excitement over this, but now it's gotten buried in minutiae," O'Brien said. "If we ever get it out to the floor, people will say, `Is that still around?'"
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