Charles J. Chaput

In the Sept. 25 issue of America, Professor Marci A. Hamilton joined with Voice of the Faithful in renewing their call for “window” legislation. Window legislation retroactively suspends the statute of limitation for childhood sexual abuse damage claims so that lawsuits filed during a specified period can proceed, regardless of whether the alleged abuse occurred five or 70 years earlier. She argues that window legislation is not about targeting Catholic institutions but protecting children. This statement does not withstand scrutiny.

 

Targeting Catholic Institutions

Professor Hamilton writes that the “most specious legal objection to the window legislation is that it is ‘targeting the Catholic Church.’” She reasons that because such legislation does not identify Catholic institutions by name, it could not possibly be targeting them. Not so.

The attorneys Jeffrey Anderson and Laurence Drivon, who specialize in suing Catholic institutions in childhood sexual abuse cases, drafted the first window legislation in California in 2002. After the bill’s passage, Drivon, Anderson and others filed suit against Catholic institutions for over 1,030 plaintiffs.

In a report in The Los Angeles Times in May 2002, Senator John Burton, the bill’s sponsor, identified the general assembly’s target. The Times reported, “Burton said the bill was aimed at ‘deep pocket’ defendants such as the Catholic Church.” The Times continued that Senator Burton said his bill “was a direct response to the widening national scandal over sex-abuse by Catholic priests.”

Professor Hamilton is an attorney who regularly represents plaintiffs suing Catholic institutions, regularly teams with Messrs. Anderson and Drivon and regularly assists V.O.T.F. and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Her writing about childhood sexual abuse seems to focus only on Catholic institutions. Among 31 such articles listed on her Findlaw Web site, every one concentrates on the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Not one focuses on the larger problem of sexual abuse of children in public schools.

Protecting the Children

Professor Hamilton writes that without window legislation, “children will be at serious risk” and that society “must make children an absolute priority.” Protecting all children is a necessary priority. However, the proposed window legislation does not protect all children. Its primary function is not about child protection but retroactively reviving time-barred claims and providing monetary damages for individuals who are well into middle age and beyond.

The goal of child protection is better served by immediate reporting of abuse, not by eliciting reports from the 1970’s and earlier. This is why child abuse reporting statutes require immediate reporting upon reasonable suspicion of abuse. It is also one reason why Catholic bishops call upon abused individuals to report to the police or their dioceses as soon as possible.

Even more important, in a U.S. Department of Education study in June 2004, Professor Charol Shakeshaft found that over three million children in public schools reported that a school employee physically sexually abused them. In Colorado alone, 85 public school teachers lost their licenses during the past eight years because of sexual conduct with students. Such numbers dwarf the historical problem in Catholic institutions, yet V.O.T.F. supports window legislation that applies only to nongovernmental entities. If civil litigation is needed to protect children, it is needed regardless of whether those children attend public schools or Catholic schools.

Just Laws

While I am not sure that we need more laws to protect children from abuse, those who propose such laws need to ensure that the laws are fair. Let me suggest five criteria for fairness. (1) Fair laws are not retroactive. (2) Fair laws abolish sovereign immunity and make public and private institutions subject to the same notice requirements, statute of limitation, required proofs and damages. (3) Fair laws do not consider old claims against dead offenders, because it is too late to prevent recidivism, exonerating evidence is lost, and fraudulent claims increase. (4) Fair laws do not create new victims. This occurs when a statute of limitation is so lengthened that a generation of innocent persons supporting a church or taxpayers supporting a school are forced to pay huge damages for an earlier generation’s negligence. (5) Fair laws strike the right balance between the competing demands of compensating victims and funding present services. During the 2006 session of the Colorado Legislature, it appeared that public schools might prospectively be subjected to childhood sexual abuse liability similar to that experienced by Catholic institutions. A public school official questioned whether such a law would require the school to divert resources from its mission to the payment of damages. This is the question of striking the right balance. It applies to public and private institutions.

We bishops have taken extraordinary precautions to ensure that sexual misconduct does not recur. We must steadfastly ensure that diocesan and parish ministries remain safe. We must continue to reach out with compassionate assistance for those injured, but also we must not sit idly by when others offer false arguments to hide their true intent.

Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., is the archbishop of Denver, Colo.

Comments

Emily Urban | 10/2/2006 - 12:30pm
As a Social Worker, I am compelled to respond to Archbishop Charles Chaput’s article in the Oct. 9, 2006 issue on “False Promise of Window Legislation” that “retroactively suspends the statute of limitation” with respect to “damage claims” of sexual abuse. The damage claims of child sexual and physical abuse carry with it the substantive issues surrounding the developmental and cognitive stage of the abused individuals, and depending on the child’s level of understanding can go on for years.

I would say that as a Social Worker, I agree with Archbishop Chaput that the “goal of child protection is better served by immediate reporting [of child sexual abuse]. However, as Dr. Carol Shakeshaft’s report indicates, the primary focus of the mandate of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) “Section 5414, Studies of National Significance” was to “study the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools.” Sexual abuse of children is a prosecutable and convictable crime while sexual misconduct is determined to be “a serious problem in our nation’s schools and one about which our parents and taxpayers have a right to be informed”.

It is with all due respect that I commend Archbishop Chaput for the Catholic Church’s efforts to ensure children against the occurrence of sexual misconduct. However, the focus has been on the prosecutable and convictable crimes of sexual abuse and not sexual misconduct.

As pertains to the “fairness of the law”, my belief is that if we do “not sit idly by” but make a conscious choice to confront the issues of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, we are aiding towards a fairness and justice for everyone concerned. How better to compassionately assist the injured and address any false arguments?

Emily Urban, MSW

(Hon.) Joseph W. Bellacosa, Esq. | 2/26/2007 - 12:28pm
I read Marci A. Hamilton’s lead article, “What the Clergy Abuse Crisis Has Taught Us” (9/25), with great chagrin and some surprise. Today, I read Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s strong rebuttal (10/9), but noticed it was placed in a much less favorable location.

I write because I am puzzled. America evidently made an editorial judgment (as opposed to a reportorial one) to run the Hamilton piece, which constitutes an inimicus curiae effort by a manifestly partisan writer with an adversarial agenda. Either you let your guard down, or your editorial compass has gone awry. How could you not see what she was up to, despite her disingenuous disclaimers? Or, I fear, did you see and decide to go forward with a “Damn the torpedoes” attitude?

You have sparked a very troubling concern in me, as a former appellate judge and former academician (and longtime America subscriber), with this journalistically questionable enterprise.

Mary Butler | 2/26/2007 - 12:34pm
Marci A. Hamilton would have us believe that the money involved in payments of lawsuits against Catholic dioceses either comes from insurance payouts or is withdrawn from the coffers of the diocese and has no connection to the personal contributions of the Catholics in the pews (“What the Clergy Abuse Crisis Has Taught Us,” 9/25). In fact, the assets of the church derive from the generosity of the faithful, past and present. The church is not a for-profit corporation in the business of making money, but a nonprofit religious institution dependent upon the charity of its members. Years ago, property was bequeathed to the church and land was purchased and churches and religious structures erected—in large measure by the nickels and dimes of immigrants—to glorify and worship God and transmit the faith to future generations. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., is correct in his reluctance to burden the families of his diocese for something in which they share no responsibility (10/9).

Emily Urban | 10/2/2006 - 12:30pm
As a Social Worker, I am compelled to respond to Archbishop Charles Chaput’s article in the Oct. 9, 2006 issue on “False Promise of Window Legislation” that “retroactively suspends the statute of limitation” with respect to “damage claims” of sexual abuse. The damage claims of child sexual and physical abuse carry with it the substantive issues surrounding the developmental and cognitive stage of the abused individuals, and depending on the child’s level of understanding can go on for years.

I would say that as a Social Worker, I agree with Archbishop Chaput that the “goal of child protection is better served by immediate reporting [of child sexual abuse]. However, as Dr. Carol Shakeshaft’s report indicates, the primary focus of the mandate of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) “Section 5414, Studies of National Significance” was to “study the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools.” Sexual abuse of children is a prosecutable and convictable crime while sexual misconduct is determined to be “a serious problem in our nation’s schools and one about which our parents and taxpayers have a right to be informed”.

It is with all due respect that I commend Archbishop Chaput for the Catholic Church’s efforts to ensure children against the occurrence of sexual misconduct. However, the focus has been on the prosecutable and convictable crimes of sexual abuse and not sexual misconduct.

As pertains to the “fairness of the law”, my belief is that if we do “not sit idly by” but make a conscious choice to confront the issues of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, we are aiding towards a fairness and justice for everyone concerned. How better to compassionately assist the injured and address any false arguments?

Emily Urban, MSW