Thursday, May 11, 2006

Abuse, Statutes of Limitations, and The Church

At a non-profit human resources seminar I attended I heard about what is now a state law in Colorado wherein the statute of limitations for filing a civil case regarding alleged abuse by an organization was lifted.  A person can now file a law suit against an organization/corporation for alleged sexual/physical abuses done umpteen years ago.

The threat to churches is obvious.  Coming off the heels of the Catholic abuse scandals, the number of suits filed against Catholic and Protestant churches has multiplied.  In California alone, where the statute of limitations was lifted for one year, hundreds of cases were started against the Catholic Church.

The kicker, though, is that the laws in California and in Colorado are insufferably myopic.  Of all the institutions that are the cause of physical and/or sexual abuse, the public school system leads the pack and is left out of this law.  In fact, the greatest number of reported abuse cases concern family and friends, and the least number of reported/alleged cases comes from churches.  The laws in these states skip right over every other context for abuse and head straight for churches.

This piece written by Charles J. Chaput, the archbishop of Denver, details several statistics, the shape of the law, and what I think to be the primary driving force behind its passing-dollar signs.  Abuse is horrible and justice should be sought out and done whenever possible.  But if justice for the abused were the motivation, why are the vast majority of the abused left out of this law?  Dollar signs.  State laws put a cap on awards granted to plaintiffs who win these cases against public schools.  No such cap exists on cases against churches.

Here are some excerpts:

In judging it, however, we need to consider the bill’s basic fairness. Any revision to civil statutes of limitations must be comprehensive, fair, and equally applied. This almost never happens. The data clearly show that the sexual abuse of minors is not a disproportionately Catholic problem. In fact, some of the worst adult sexual misconduct with minors occurs in public institutions, particularly public schools. But in most states, those schools enjoy some form of governmental immunity. In other words, it’s far easier to sue a private institution, such as a Catholic diocese, than it is to sue a public-school district. It’s also a lot more lucrative since, even if governmental immunity were waived, public schools and institutions usually enjoy the added protection of low caps on damages (in Colorado, $150,000). For exactly the same sexual abuse in a public school and a Catholic parish, the difference in financial exposure is millions of dollars.

Worse, as Shakeshaft [Hofstra University expert on public school sexual misconduct] points out, “national data indicate that few [public school] administrators report educator sexual misconduct to the police or district attorney. When this abuse is reported to the criminal justice system, it comes from parents or others.” And reporting patterns in public schools “show that when students do report [educator sexual misconduct], they are often ignored. Teachers and other staff in public schools are often moved from school to school when allegations emerge, rather than the school attempting to remove the teacher from the district.” This is exactly what many Catholic dioceses have been accused of in the past, but with devastating financial consequences for the dioceses.

There is an inequity hardwired into the whole national discussion of sexual abuse. Catholics can live with hard laws if they serve the common good—but the laws need to be equally hard for all offending persons and institutions, with the same rules and penalties and no hidden escape clauses.

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