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Bill Clears Way For More Cases Against Clergy

Proposal Seeks To Change Law on Sex Abuse

Jan 11, 2003 | AP Two state lawmakers began circulating a draft of a bill Friday meant to make it easier for victims of sexual abuse by clergy to sue religious organizations.

The bill would allow victims to sue religious organizations that should have known that a clergy member had previous sexual contact with a minor and did not try to prevent it from happening again.

The law would open the door to such lawsuits that many believe the state Supreme Court closed in 1995 when it ruled it would never decide whether the Catholic Church or any other religious denomination had improperly hired workers because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited such review.

“Child abuse crimes must no longer be hidden behind church doors,” said state Rep. Peggy Krusick, D-Milwaukee, who is co-sponsoring the legislation with state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, raised some concerns about the proposal.

The issue of lawsuits against religious organizations came up because of the 1995 case of Pritzlaff v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The state Supreme Court ruled that Judith M. Pritzlaff could not sue the archdiocese for an alleged consensual relationship with a priest that she said ruined her marriage.

Huebscher said the proposed bill is meant to allow lawsuits only over sexual abuse but could open up religious organizations to all kinds of actions of how they operate, including the relationships between priests and bishops.

Those are exactly the issues the state Supreme Court did not want to get into with its 1995 decision, he said.

“Everybody is going to be curious as to how a Legislature tells the Supreme Court how to define the First Amendment,” Huebscher said.

The draft bill proposes other changes to state law regarding abuse. It would:

Add clergy to the list of professions required to report suspected child abuse or neglect, though the clergy would not have to report information received during a confidential communication.

Expand the statute of limitations for prosecuting certain crimes against children to age 35 instead of the current age 31.

Allow victims of certain crimes against children to bring a civil action before reaching age 26 or within five years of discovering the injury, whichever came later. The provision would cover those with repressed memories who recall abuse after reaching age 26.

Darling and Krusick began collecting input for their draft a year ago amid the explosion of allegations of sexual abuse levied against the Catholic church. Darling said they will now circulate their draft for the next month before tweaking the legislation and introducing it to the Legislature.

She said the bill will have to be introduced soon so it gets its deserved attention. The state is facing a $2.6 billion deficit, and Gov. Jim Doyle’s budget plan will take precedent over all other legislation.

“People agree that children need to be protected, victims need to get retribution and justice, and the religious organizations have to be accountable to a reasonable standard,” Darling said.

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