Worshiping strict statutes of limitation

The Catholic Church fights bills extending limits for filing charges of child sex abuse.

Published August 9, 2007 11:00PM (EDT)

An excerpt from Ms. on the Roman Catholic Church's lobbying against bills extending statute of limitation laws related to child abuse had my stomach churning with pope-fearing bile. I'll admit to being a godless heathen, but this story should make the pious even more pissed off.

According to the piece, 25 states no longer maintain time limits in prosecuting the most serious offenses, but in those that do, victims of childhood sexual abuse can miss their "window" to file charges or sue in civil court. (Until recently in Delaware, for instance, children needed to file suit within two years of the abuse, regardless of the child's age.) Now about a dozen states are considering extending criminal-case time limits or enacting one-time "civil windows," and the Catholic Church doesn't seem to be very merry about it.

Why, pray tell? Back in 2002 California passed such a law allowing those with expired claims to sue retroactively. An estimated 800 litigants filed suits relating to child abuse, and the church began hemorrhaging money like blood from a proverbial wound; a $100 million settlement was paid out by the Diocese of Orange, and $660 million by the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Although the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops has taken no public position on the issue, Ms. reports that on a state-by-state basis, bishops conferences have hired lobbyists and stirred up support among congregants by arguing that such laws will unleash a plague of frivolous lawsuits leading to the church's bankruptcy. Is the fear of uncurbed litigation a good reason to prevent suits from those who say they were molested by clergy? No doubt, the Catholic Church with its deep pockets and shady history of institutionally orchestrated coverups (which extend from New Zealand to Mexico) might be a tempting target for unfair suits, but these are also the very reasons to argue that the victims deserve their day in court. Hugely powerful, obscenely wealthy, with a history of leaders behaving as if they were above the law, the church hardly seems like the victim here. Or are my apostate attitudes veiling mine eyes?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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