From the Bishops Statute of limitations

As I write this column on April 30, I have just heard that H.B. 5473 has been withdrawn at the State legislature. This is the bill that would have extended retroactively for an indefinite period of time the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of minors in the State of Connecticut. Withdrawal of the bill is good public policy for the State of Connecticut. I am deeply grateful to all of you who helped with advocacy in this regard.

Let it be known nonetheless that we continue to go forward with sincere concern and effective action for alleged victims of sexual abuse.

Connecticut already has the longest retroactive statute of limitations in the United States: 30 years after a person reaches the age of 18. Various columnists and reporters have conveyed mistaken information about this, so it may be helpful to clarify matters.

The current statute of limitations in Connecticut applicable to child sexual abuse claims requires that a lawsuit be instituted within 30 years of the age that the claimant reaches the age of majority. In other words, a person currently has until his or her 48th birthday to bring a lawsuit based on a claim of sexual abuse that occurred in his or her youth. H.B. 5473 would have allowed a person to bring a lawsuit no matter when the abuse was claimed to have occurred, even if it was 50, 60, or 70 years ago, if another claimant had previously brought suit involving that alleged abuser. The problem with allowing such a long period of time to bring lawsuits is that often the alleged abuser and witnesses have died, and records have been destroyed, all of which make it very difficult to defend against such a claim.

Some columnists and reporters have written that a handful of other states, including Alaska, Delaware, Maine, and Florida, have abolished their statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. Yes, they did, but they did it prospectively, in other words, for future cases, not retroactively, as H.B. 5473 would have done. Florida’s recent legislation takes effect July 1, 2010, for future claims. Various writers have failed repeatedly to report this highly important distinction.

Notice should also be made that it is extremely difficult to bring a suit claiming sexual abuse of a minor against State institutions or municipalities. Suits are basically not effective against public schools in claims relating to teachers and coaches, foster parents in State programs, and staff members in juvenile detention facilities. The occurrences of these events in the public sector continue to be frequent, but when was the last time you heard of a lawsuit being filed against a public institution in their regard? Yet H.B. 5473 would have enabled suits against the Catholic Church and other non-public entities for alleged conduct going back 50, 60, or 70 years. If such were the situation involving the public entities, many public school boards and the State would go bankrupt. Reliance on sovereign immunity and governmental immunity is effective in preventing suits against government agencies. Obviously, the justice here is highly uneven.

The Catholic Church in Connecticut has established strong policies and practices to prevent sexual abuse of minors. Every year, the Archdiocese of Hartford, the Diocese of Bridgeport, and the Diocese of Norwich receive a report on an annual audit conducted by investigators who are mostly former FBI agents working on behalf of the National Review Board, showing compliance with 100 percent of the extensive requirements of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Background checks on all people – staff and volunteers – working with youngsters; conferences and workshops for adults and youngsters, and diocesan review committees are part of the well-developed programs in place. It is interesting to note that various observers, Catholic and otherwise, have stated that the Catholic Church today is the safest place for youngsters.

As I have written and stated many times, we regard sexual abuse of minors as a heinous act, a heart-sickening event, a grievous sin, and a serious crime.

We must continue our work to make sure that our efforts to prevent it continue to be effective. We will, at the same time, make every effort in good faith to assist victims in the past with all the means at our disposal.

Reprinted with permission from the Catholic Transcript.

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