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Bishops seek parity in application of protection

Feb 4, 2006 | THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN

The state's three Roman Catholic bishops have jointly criticized proposed legislation that would lift the statute of limitation for child sexual-abuse lawsuits.

Pueblo's Bishop Arthur Tafoya joined Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput and Colorado Springs' Bishop Michael Sheridan for the statement, issued Monday.

Proposals by state Reps. Rosemary Marshall, D-Denver, and Gwyn Green, D-Denver, along with state Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden, and state Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, "would eliminate or modify statutes of limitation so that a childhood sexual abuse victim could wait 30 years, 40 years, or even longer before filing a suit for damages against Catholic institutions and other private entities in Colorado," the bishops said.

But, the bishops complained, the proposed legislation would not affect public entities such as public schools and there appears to be unequal applications of justice - "a soft version when the sexual offender works for a public entity, and another, much harder version, when the offender works for a Catholic or private institution."

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a measure Thursday (House Bill 1088) that would remove criminal and civil limits on the statute of limitations for sex offenses against a child.

The proposed law would apply to private institutions, including churches and private colleges, but would not include public institutions, including schools or police.

Rep. Rosemary Marshall, D-Denver, said her bill is not directed at any specific organization, but some lawmakers disagreed.

‘‘This was intended to be about the Catholic Church,’’ said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma.

The Roman Catholic Church, nationwide, has been driven to extreme fiscal difficulties by virtue of a seemingly endless series of lawsuits filed against dioceses for sexual abuse of children by priests, brothers and others.

Nationwide, more than $1 billion has been paid by dioceses to settle claims that number in the thousands.

In the Pueblo diocese, headed by Tafoya, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed in connection with allegations of abuse against William Mueller, a Marianist brother who taught in the late 1960s at Roncalli High School.

The Denver archdiocese also faces scores of lawsuits in connection with allegations against a now-resigned priest, Robert White.

The Colorado lawsuits were filed over charges of molestation allegedly perpetrated decades ago.

‘‘We now have a lot of victims coming forward who have no way to seek any justice,’’ said Fitz-Gerald, a Catholic. ‘‘I’m trying to give people who have been abused their day in court and let juries sort it out.’’

Said the trio of bishops in response: "We all agree that the sexual abuse of a minor is a serious crime and a grave sin. The proposed pieces of legislation, whatever their final form, and whether they’re pulled from consideration or move forward, have sparked an important discussion (about) Colorado's public policy on civil lawsuits arising from such sexual abuse."

The three bishops said that, "Nationally, the evidence is now irrefutable that sexual abuse and misconduct against minors in public schools is a serious problem - in fact, more serious than anywhere outside the home, including churches. Since most Catholic children in Colorado attend public schools, this should seriously concern the whole Catholic community."

The bishops said that the state’s sovereign immunity protection limits a family’s ability to sue a public school or public institution for sexual abuse of a child. Even without such immunity, the bishops said, the victim of a public school teacher's misconduct must begin a claim by filing a formal notice within 180 days after the incident and damages are capped at $150,000.

"Why can a victim of teacher or clergy abuse in a Catholic school or parish wait a lifetime before initiating such litigation, while the victim of exactly the same and even more frequent abuse in a public-school setting loses his or her claim by waiting 181 days?” the bishops asked.

And, they asked, "Why should a Catholic institution that is sued for such conduct be liable for massive, community-crippling damages, while guilty public institutions - even if sovereign immunity were waived - would face a mere $150,000 damages?”

The statement did not make it clear whether it sought harsher liabilities and extending a statute of limitations for the civil institutions or whether it was seeking the same protections a "soft version" for churches, priests and dioceses.

There was, however, an indication of regret about the multiple abuses that have rocked the church, locally and nationally: "Catholics have learned about the national scope and human impact of sexual abuse the hard way. As bishops, we are wholeheartedly committed to helping victims heal and doing everything we can to protect our families in any Church-related environment.

"But the facts clearly show that the sexual abuse of minors is in no way a uniquely - or even disproportionately - ‘Catholic’ problem."


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