State Aims for Tougher Abuse Laws
Bill Would Remove Statute of Limitations on Prosecution
By Daniel Barrick
Concord Monitor [New Hampshire]
March 5, 2003
After Monday's release of church files, which depicted a pattern of child endangerment by the Diocese of Manchester, Catholics in New Hampshire are facing a painful piece of the past.
But the state attorney general's office - the agency behind the clergy abuse investigation - is already looking forward. A bill supported by the state Department of Justice would allow state officials to prosecute child molesters regardless of how long ago the abuse happened.
Will Delker, senior assistant attorney general, testified yesterday that the bill rose from the year-long investigation his agency made into child abuse by priests and coverups by church officials. The bill would also make it easier for prosecutors to punish people who destroy evidence of child abuse.
"With this bill, victims will be able to find new hope in the criminal justice system," Delker testified yesterday.
New Hampshire already has relatively strong child protection laws. Prosecutors can now charge a child molester until the victim's 40th birthday. Prosecutors in other states where that time frame is shorter, such as New York and Massachusetts, have been stymied in their attempts to bring charges against dioceses they believe endangered children.
A grand jury on Long Island last month released a scathing report in which they found evidence of a systematic coverup of abusive priests by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. But New York's five-year statute of limitations made it nearly impossible for prosecution of any individual church officials.
And in Massachusetts, authorities lacked the kind of legal footing that allowed New Hampshire law enforcement officials to move against the Diocese of Manchester. For instance, until last year Massachusetts clergy were not legally required to report alleged child abuse. The state also lacked laws prohibiting the endangerment of children until last year.
The new House bill would also make it easier for officials to prosecute people who destroyed evidence of sexual abuse, another provision inspired by the state's investigation of the diocese, Delker said. In gathering evidence of past patterns of abuse, "there were some crimes that we couldn't pursue, because no one knew about it because of actions of the diocese," he said.
Those coverups - including missing personnel reports and letters - were described in a state report released Monday, along with 9,000 pages of church files. The disclosure was part of an unprecedented settlement between the diocese and the attorney general's office, in which the church avoided an indictment on child endangerment charges in exchange for an admission that it harmed children.
Under the terms of that agreement, church officials are also exempt from criminal prosecution on child endangerment charges.
Former attorney general Philip McLaughlin, who initiated the investigation of the church last year, said his findings convinced him that it was the church's policies, not individual leaders, that needed the most immediate action.
"My judgment was that (charging individual church officials) would have masked the underlying problem," McLaughlin said yesterday. "What institutions fear most is the disclosure of the way they do business. Revealing that can operate as a corrective. That's the goal."
But the agreement does not prevent victims from bringing civil claims against individual church officials. Three attorneys are pursuing civil suits against the Diocese of Manchester on behalf of abuse victims. One of those attorneys, Peter Hutchins of Manchester, said yesterday that some victims could bring charges against specific diocese officials who endangered them by sheltering their abusers, but such litigation is not likely. Suing the diocese itself was more likely to bring a larger monetary award, he said.
Supporters of the new House bill say protecting future generations from abuse is the primary goal of their legislation, not prosecuting individual officials.
"We want to see that something like this doesn't happen in the future, or prevent it as best we can," said Rep. William Knowles, a Dover Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.
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