Archbishop criticizes removing time limits on abuse suits

MADISON, Wis. – Two bills before the Wisconsin Legislature that would expand or remove the statute of limitations for child abuse cases “will kneecap or even eliminate” church ministries to the needy and punish innocent Catholics for years to come, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee told a state Senate committee Jan. 16.

The archbishop was among several witnesses speaking out against the proposed legislation at a public hearing in Madison by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections and Housing.

The Senate bill, SB 356, and its counterpart in the Assembly, AB 651, would repeal the statute of limitations for all future civil suits filed by childhood sexual abuse victims and open a three-year grace period for filing lawsuits now barred by current statute of limitations.

Wisconsin increased the statute of limitations for child abuse crimes in 2004, allowing a victim to bring suit against his or her abusers or other guilty parties until his or her 35th birthday. The Catholic Church had backed that legislation.

In his Jan. 16 testimony, Archbishop Dolan said he represented “a church that is ashamed” of past actions by a minority of priests but also “a church that, with the help of its people, has risen to leadership on this issue.”

“In the past, the church was, at times, an example of what not to do; now we are looked to as a model of what to do,” he said.

After outlining the many steps taken by the church to help victims of past abuse and to prevent any recurrence in the future, the archbishop said the proposed legislation “goes radically too far” and would “do great damage to” to the 1.5 million Catholics in Wisconsin.

“It will saddle this generation of Catholic people and the next with the inevitable loss of services and ministries caused by a radical new requirement to deal with the sins and bad judgment of past generations,” he said.

Archbishop Dolan said the church has not used the statute of limitations “to shirk our responsibility to victims/survivors of sexual abuse” and has provided financial settlements and ongoing spiritual and emotional care to nearly 170 people at a cost of more than $17 million since 2002.

“There is no Catholic ‘superfund’ that can provide the monies this legislation will require of the church,” he said. “We are at the limit of our ability to sacrifice.”

Not only would removing the statute of limitations be unjust toward churches and nonprofits, but older lawsuits also could harm current Catholics who had nothing to do with the original incidents, he said.

“I can’t see how any of the goals that were – laudably – put forth by the sponsors of this bill” will be satisfied, Archbishop Dolan told the Catholic Herald, diocesan newspaper in Madison, after his testimony. “It’ll just make it easier to sue the church.”

While the bills’ authors say the legislation is not targeting any entity, opponents of the bill say removing the statute of limitations would unfairly impact private institutions while leaving public entities subject to the current “sovereign immunity” cap of $50,000 per person.

Also testifying against the legislation was Scott D. Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, who noted that the average Christian congregation in the state had fewer than 150 members.

“One court case could destroy a local church which is entirely dependent on the voluntary contributions of its current members, none of whom, I suspect, would have been involved in an incident that may have occurred decades ago,” he said. “Even those churches which do have regional structures have no deep pockets, no hidden resources to draw upon.”

James Birnbaum, a lawyer who has represented both sex abuse victims and those accused of committing abuse and now serves as diocesan attorney for the LaCrosse Diocese, told the committee members that “the plight and pain of victims is well known” to him.

“As strongly as I feel about the plight and pain of victims of child sexual abuse and seeing the consequences that flow from that abuse, nonetheless, it would be a catastrophic public policy mistake to create disparate classes of both victims and institutions that provide essential services and education,” Mr. Birnbaum said.

“The bottom line is, while on its face this legislation suggests that it is treating everybody the same, in reality it’s targeted at private not-for-profit institutions,” Mr. Birnbaum later told The Catholic Times, newspaper of the LaCrosse Diocese.

Contributing to this story were Kat Wagner of Madison and Franz Klein of LaCrosse.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.