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Clergy May Have To Report Abuse Claims

Jan 23, 2003 | AP

Lawmakers today will consider adding clergy to the professions required to report any suspected child abuse.

Therapists and teachers already must report child abuse, and a bill sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle) would add clergy to the list.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle already requires priests to report knowledge of child abuse that is obtained outside of confession to civil authorities.

Jackie O'Ryan, Seattle archdiocese spokeswoman, declined comment on the bill until she reads it in revised form today. But she added: "We have come a long way in the past decade and a half to address past failures and implement strict policies on reporting. While mistakes have been made, we support the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse."

Today's hearing before the House Children & Family Services Committee marks the second time this week legislators have weighed changing state law in response to the priest sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Victims of childhood sexual abuse could sue their abusers many years later if lawmakers approve a bill heard by a committee Tuesday.

The bill "puts organizations on notice that it's not going to be tolerated anymore," said Rep. Al O'Brien (D-Mountlake Terrace), who expects the measure to pass the Legislature easily.

Currently, sexual abuse civil lawsuits in Washington must be filed within three years of the abuse, within three years of the discovery of the effects of the abuse, or within three years of the victim's 18th birthday, whichever comes later.

The bill would do away with a statute of limitations on such civil suits.

Victims and their advocates told the House Judiciary Committee that the bill should be retroactive allowing those assaulted in the past to sue their abusers.

One man shook visibly as he delivered a graphic account of the abuse he said he suffered at the hands of a priest and several boys in the 1960s.

"His eyes were completely dilated. I could find no color or soul, which was what I was looking for," said Douglas Hamlin of Spanaway, who said he repressed the memories until last year. "It wasn't just me they destroyed, it was my entire family."

The bill was written to apply to future victims in order to make the process "simpler and cleaner," said Rep. Bruce Chandler (R-Granger), one of the bill's supporters.

O'Ryan, of the Seattle archdiocese, voiced reservations Wednesday about making the statute of limitations retroactive. "We're concerned that retroactive statute of limitations will mean it will be very difficult to examine the facts of a case that may have taken place 20 or 30 years ago," she said. "We're very interested in seeing to it that any legislation is good legislation in providing justice to the victim and the accused."

In Western Washington, at least 28 men and one woman have sued the Seattle archdiocese, alleging sexual abuse by priests of minors going back to the 1960s.

Including past victims might make the bill more difficult to pass and expose it to legal challenges.

Some lawmakers, while sympathetic to the victims, expressed concern that making the law retroactive would spell financial disaster for institutions like the Catholic Church.

"Do we want, as lawmakers, to set up a system that is almost guaranteed to bring these very institutions financially to their knees?" asked committee Chairwoman Pat Lantz (D-Gig Harbor).

Only a tiny percentage of those abused as children sue their abusers, said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He said other states that have removed the statute of limitations have not seen any significant damage to institutions that might face suits.

Victims do not come forward until years later for many reasons, and should not be punished for waiting, said Suzanne Brown, executive director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.

"A statute of limitations is sort of an arbitrary line that we've created to essentially allow for people to continue their complicity in terms of sexual abuse and cut off victims from the ability to have redress," Brown said.

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