Lawsuits, extensive media coverage of clergy cases follow change in law

| February 26, 2014

Since Dec. 5, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has listed the names of 43 clergy members — 39 of whom have substantiated claims against them of sexual abuse of a minor — on the disclosure section of its website.

Just three of 43 names involve claims made known to the archdiocese since 2004, and one of those three relates to incidents that were alleged to have occurred in the 1950s. Most of the claims allege abuse that happened decades ago.

So why have people been hearing about these cases in the media during the last several months, including news of lawsuits filed on behalf of those alleging abuse?

The answer dates back to the 2013 Minnesota state legislative session, when lawmakers passed a bill eliminating the civil statute of limitations for cases of past child sexual abuse, allowing anyone with a claim of abuse to file lawsuits for a three-year period regardless of how far back their claims date and regardless of whether the alleged abuser is deceased. Previously, an alleged child sex-abuse victim had until age 24 to file a lawsuit.

This is the first time Minnesota has enacted a three-year window. The state twice previously eliminated the civil statute of limitations for cases of past child sexual abuse for one-year windows — in 1989 and 1991.

Seven new lawsuits alleging clergy sexual abuse of minors have been filed on account of the new law, which became effective May 25, 2013, said Joseph Kueppers, archdiocesan chancellor for civil affairs. They involve incidents that occurred from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Pros and cons

Supporters of repealing statutes of limitations in cases of sexual abuse say it empowers victims, many of whom are not prepared to deal with the ramifications of the alleged abuse until later in life

Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York who tracks statute of limitation laws nationwide, testified in favor of the Minnesota bill at the state Legislature last March before it was signed into law.

Hamilton said the bill “would protect the children of Minnesota by making it possible for victims to come forward and identify their perpetrators in a court of law. It would also bring delayed, but still welcome, justice to these victims.”

In Minnesota and around the country, however, a variety of organizations have expressed concerns about changing the law in this way.

A statute of limitations law is based in part on fairness, as an acknowledgment that “it is almost impossible to defend against claims that are very old, and correspondingly difficult for judges and juries to have everything they need to do their jobs effectively,” Anthony Picarello, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ former general counsel and now associate general secretary, explained in a Catholic News Service interview in 2011.

“Plaintiffs can always submit their own testimony as evidence, which alone can satisfy the low burden of proof in civil cases; but the evidence available to defendants would be severely compromised — witnesses die, those who remain have faded memories, and documents deteriorate or get lost,” he said.

Helping victims

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been the focus of intense media scrutiny since last fall, fueled in part by new lawsuits filed because of the change in the law. However, one of the aspects of these stories that has not been relayed in media reports are the many actions and financial commitment made by the archdiocese to help victims and create safe environments for children and vulnerable adults.

“Any incidence of abuse within Church ministry is horrific and cannot be tolerated,” said Father Charles Lachowitzer, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the archdiocese. “The impact on victims and their families is devastating and life-long. We want to do all that we can, with Christian compassion and love, to assist them in the healing process.”

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has maintained an advocacy and victim assistance office since 1992 to respond to victims’ complaints and concerns and offer a variety of assistance, including helping victims to make a report to civil and Church authorities. The office also assists victims in obtaining independent counseling services and other forms of support.

As reported in broad financial disclosures made by the archdiocese earlier in February, significant resources have been dedicated to aiding and caring for victims of abuse over the past decade, relating in most cases to abuse that happened as many as 40 or 50 years ago.

“It’s the right thing to do as a Church. We cannot apologize enough for the harm that has been caused,” Father Lachowitzer said. “And there is always more that we can do. At the same time, the more that we can do doesn’t negate all that has been done with sincere concern and outreach for those who have been hurt.”

As part of efforts to create safe environments, all clergy, Church and Catholic school employees and volunteers who have contact with minors are required to sign a code of pastoral conduct, submit to a background check and attend an adult safe-environment training session called “VIRTUS: Protecting God’s Children.”

The archdiocese implemented VIRTUS in 2005 following the U.S. bishops’ 2002 adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which requires dioceses to maintain safe environment programs.

Most of the local news reports in recent months about clergy sexual abuse of minors involve, with a few exceptions, abuse or alleged abuse committed between the mid-1950s and 1980s before many elements of the archdiocese’s prevention programs were implemented.

Lynette Forbes-Cardey, coordinator of the archdiocese’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, said she believes VIRTUS and the archdiocese’s other safe environment initiatives are making a difference in protecting youth.

“You can’t prove a negative. We don’t know how many victims we have saved by people who have taken the VIRTUS training, and have intercepted it,” Forbes-Cardey told The Catholic Spirit in an interview last January. But, she added, her office has received information from parishes and schools that they have raised awareness and safety levels because of the training.

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