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Lawmakers Push Changes To Fight Abuse

Apr 30, 2002 | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Two state lawmakers are preparing legislation to make it easier to prosecute clergy members who molest children, and make it possible for victims to sue religious organizations for failing to deal with abusers.

The proposal also would require clergy members, with certain exceptions, to report any possible sexual abuse of minors to government authorities.

If enacted, the changes would address many issues pressed by abuse victims of Catholic priests.

"This bill is long overdue," Joe Cerniglia, a Milwaukee-area victim, said Tuesday. "It's something that would definitely make (churches) accountable."

But many legal and political hurdles remain.

Cerniglia cautioned that some of the reforms had seemingly gained strong support in the Legislature several years ago but never became law. Catholics who are unhappy with the church's response to the issue must be ready to take action, he said.

"We need people and politicians to really get behind this and see the importance of this," Cerniglia said.

The legislation, which would apply to clergy from all denominations, is only being researched and no draft bill has been written. But the backers - Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee) - have set three major goals for the legislation, which they plan to introduce in January:

Extend the statute of limitations to make it easier to prosecute molesters and easier for their victims to file lawsuits.
Generally speaking, criminal charges in the sexual abuse of a minor must be filed before the victim reaches age 31. And, generally, victims must file a lawsuit within five years of the act or within five years of discovering injury caused by the abuse.

In the past couple of decades, the Legislature has extended the statute of limitations in both types of cases more than once.

Add clergy to the list of professionals - including teachers, doctors and others - who must report possible sexual abuse to authorities.
Priests and other clergy are not now required to make such reports. Under the proposal, clergy would not have to report if they learned of possible abuse in a confidential setting.

The so-called mandatory reporting provision had strong support when it was proposed in 1995 but was dropped from a child abuse bill. Michael Blumenfeld, executive director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference in Madison, said it would stand a good chance of passing this time as long as it contained the confidentiality exceptions.

Allow people who were abused by clergy as minors to sue churches or other religious organizations for "negligent supervision."
This could be the most difficult provision to pass, given that it could face opposition as well as legal problems because of a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling.

"It's understandable that they would want to provide additional legal protections for victims," said John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference in Madison. "But holding dioceses accountable for actions of an individual that are clearly outside of that individual's duties is a complicated question and would have to be addressed with care."

In its so-called Pritzlaff decision, the state Supreme Court in 1995 said it would never decide whether the Catholic Church or any other religious denomination had improperly hired, supervised or trained its professional workers. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibited any such review, the court said.

Darling and Krusick believe, however, that a law enabling adults who were abused as children to sue religious organizations could be written in a way that would not violate First Amendment protections. They are awaiting a legal analysis from the state Legislative Council on all aspects of their proposal before proceeding.

Both lawmakers stressed that they want to write a bill only after getting input from religious organizations, victim groups, law enforcement officials and others over the next several months.

"It's necessary to move beyond just changing church policy. We need strong, effective laws at the state level to prevent abuse and to allow the prosecution of abusers and allow victims to get justice," Krusick said. "The church hierarchy must no longer be able to cover up cases of known or suspected abuse."

"We want to put Wisconsin in the mainstream of protecting our children and adults who have been abused by clergy," Darling added.

Marvin Munyon, president of the Family Research Forum in Madison, said he opposes the proposals because he thinks enforcing existing laws could achieve many of the same goals.

Only abusers themselves should be subjected to lawsuits, unless churches or religious organizations tried to cover up abuse, Munyon said. And clergy members might be less able to solve family problems if they are required by law to report even possible cases of abuse, he said.

Munyon also said extending the statute of limitations is problematic because it is difficult to prove abuse incidents that occurred many years ago. It is better to emphasize quick handling of abuse cases when they occur, so that abusers will be deterred and victims will be more likely to come forward, he said.

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