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Child Sex Scandals in the Catholic Church and Schools May Bring Legal Changes

— January 24, 2019

Several states, including New Jersey and New York, are contemplating major changes to the way they treat lawsuits filed by victims of child sex abuse.

Decades of lobbying to extend the statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse are beginning to pay off.

This year, writes the Associated Press, has seen an unprecedented number of state-level breakthroughs. The policy shifts are likely related to widespread and high-profile lawsuits filed against the Roman Catholic Church.

New York, claims the AP, makes a stellar exhibit. A recent takeover of the state legislature by Democrats ‘seems almost certain’ to begin working on legislative fixes to what’s widely regarded as one of the nation’s most restrictive laws.

Changes are also on track in Rhode Island and New Jersey. Pennsylvania has spent months grappling with its statute of limitations; in August, a grandy jury accused at least 300 Catholic priests of abusing more than 1,000 children in the past seven years. Since August, legal extensions and fix-it proposals have been bounced back and forth between the state House and Senate.

Right now, legal recourse for childhood victims of sexual abuse is limited. According to the Associated Press, only a handful of states—including California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii—have “lookback window” laws. Under their purview, victims are entitled to file civil lawsuits against institutions which caused them harm.

California’s one-year window opened in 2003.

Hundreds of civil actions have since been filed, with the Catholic Church alone paying out more than $1 billion in damages. State activists and legislators are attempting to instate another lookback window this year.

St. Anthony Catholic Church in Guam. The Archdiocese of Guam, a U.S. territory, declared bankruptcy last week in an effort to manage financial fallout from a sex abuse scandal of alarming proportions. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Listed as public domain.

Large payouts in California, Delaware and Minnesota have all prompted local dioceses to file bankruptcy. The Catholic Church, insurance agents and the Boy Scouts of America have all lobbied against the creation and updating of lookback windows across the United States.

But University of Pennsylvania professor Marci Hamilton, an expert on statute-of-limitations reform, says victims and advocates are likely to have their way.

“Before, people were giving the bishops the benefit of the doubt, but this time there was outrage,” Hamilton said. “Politicians now understand that people are behind the victims.”

Last year, writes the Associated Press, New York’s Democratic-controlled lower chamber approved the long-contested Child Victims Act. The CVA extends deadlines for pursuing civil and criminal cases and creates a year-long window to sue for past abuses.

With Democrats taking control of the Senate in November, the measure is expected to pass.

Once opposed to the measure, the New York Catholic Conference said it’d drop its resistance if a lookback window will allow lawsuits against public entities, such as schools and government agencies.

“It insures [sic] fair and reasonable compensation; and prevents the real possibility—as has happened elsewhere—of bankrupting both public and private organizations, including churches, that provide essential services in charity, education and health care,” wrote Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York.

Advocates say the best way to move forward is to ensure transparency.

“The right thing to do is come clean, open the books and know sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said Michael Polenberg of New York nonprofit Safe Horizon.


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