Editorial: One Compromise Too Far

The Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
May 8, 2003

Catholic bishops found the provision unacceptable, as did small independent congregations. State lawyers said there might be constitutional problems. So legislators putting together a bill to deal with clergy sexual abuse cases have placed compromise above principle and nixed a provision that would have allowed lawsuits in clergy sexual abuse cases outside of the statute of limitations.

That's a shame. It means that many victims of abuse probably will never see justice for what happened to them as children. It means that some church officials who abetted clergy pedophiles by covering for them will be able to continue to dodge responsibility for their actions. It means that the dirty secrets of the past will remain hidden.

The provision in question would have opened a one-year window during which victims could file suit. Because court decisions in the mid-1990s essentially cut off victims from suing churches for the criminal actions of their clergy, legislators in Wisconsin have a special obligation to victims to reopen that window.

Some very well-intentioned officials argue that the one-year window would open the floodgates to suits from victims and charlatans and that ancient cases could spell doom today for smaller congregations with few members and little money. We understand those concerns, but we suspect they are overblown - a similar law in California has not yielded such results. We also suspect some compromise could have been reached to protect innocent people from bankruptcy.

As for the constitutional issues, those are for the courts to decide. California's law is still on the books. If church officials want to continue to fight justice for victims, let them fight it out in a public courtroom and open their records for all to see.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), one of the legislators putting the bill together, told a reporter that victims will have to compromise and won't be able to get everything they want in this bill. And there will be many good things in this bill. But we submit that victims of clergy abuse have been told all their lives that they have to compromise. The time for compromise is over. It's time to hold people and institutions accountable.


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