Sex-Crime Victims May Get Assist

By Lesley Clark
The Miami Herald [Tallahassee FL]
Downloaded March 29, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Prompted by scandals involving long-repressed tales of molestation of youngsters by Catholic priests, lawmakers are pushing legislation to give child victims unlimited time to report serious sex crimes.

The measure, approved Thursday by the House Public Safety & Crime Prevention Committee, allows prosecutors to file charges for first-degree felony sex crimes even if victims wait decades to report the crime. Currently, serious sexual crimes against children under 12 carry no statute of limitations. But minors who are over 12 when they are molested have until age 22 to report it.

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar suggested the measure after police reported having trouble prosecuting people who had preyed on children and coerced them into silence.

"There's been a lot of stuff in the news over the summer and last spring regarding Catholic priests and this is pretty much to address that," said Rep. Jim Kallinger, a Winter Park Republican who is working with Lamar. Kallinger noted that child victims are often too intimidated to report sexual abuse.

"We're finding that it takes time to come to terms with it," he said.

The Florida Catholic Conference, which represents the state's seven dioceses on government issues, is supporting the bill, even though it could lead to criminal charges against priests.

Mike McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, said the state's dioceses are ``very comfortable with the legislation and have no concerns with it."

In many clergy sexual-abuse cases, the defense strategy has been to try to get the suits quickly dismissed on a technicality by invoking the statute-of-limitations defense.

The House measure advanced Thursday and will next go before the full House. A companion measure has cleared a Senate committee and will be discussed next week.

Broward Democratic Rep. Jack Seiler, who is Catholic, tried to soften the legislation, suggesting that it could lead to an increase in false allegations against priests and be used as a weapon in domestic disputes. He proposed extending the statute of limitations in such crimes only if the victim had some "independent evidence" of abuse, such as DNA or a witness statement.

"You could destroy someone's career with a false accusation under this bill," Seiler said, noting that the statute of limitations protects people from unfair prosecution. He noted that a lawsuit has been filed against a Broward priest who died in 1996.

"You're putting the system out of balance," Seiler said. ``We're opening the door too far and I think you're going to allow a lot of false accusations to surface."

But Kallinger said the issue is sexual abuse, not false reporting.

And Rep. Juan-Carlos Planas, a Miami Republican and former prosecutor, noted that prosecutors would still need to make their cases to a jury.

Planas said it can take some victims years to tell anyone.

"These people are shellshocked," he said. ``They feel a sense that they have been violated and the one thing they want to do is crawl into a little hole and die."

This report was supplemented with information from Herald wire services.


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