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Priest abuse victims ask for more time to sue

Michigan courts reject claims due to statute of limitations; legislation to lift time limit languishes

Jan 14, 2006 | AP Timothy Hassett says he was in fourth grade when his priest began taking him to the church rectory and molesting him.

The sexual abuse at St. Mary's of Redford in Detroit lasted two years, Hassett says, and the damage was permanent.

He was drinking by sixth grade. Drugs followed in ninth grade. By 10th grade, he was a dropout.

Hassett, 43, says he didn't tell anyone about the abuse until attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a few years ago.

"I have no religion left," he says. "It was hard to do AA because you've got to believe in a higher power. As far as I was concerned, my higher power screwed me."

Hassett, a supervisor at an aviation company in west Michigan, sued the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2004 because "money is the only way you're gonna make them change."

But for Hassett and other alleged victims of decades-old abuse, Michigan courts have provided no relief, ruling they waited too long to file civil lawsuits. The statute of limitations usually bars criminal charges in older abuse cases, too.

With their legal options dwindling, plaintiffs and victims' rights advocates are turning to the Legislature for help.

"That is probably the most promising avenue of relief for people," says Mark Bendure, an appellate attorney for Hassett and others. "The question is whether the Legislature is going to do the right thing."

Advocates for change say few victims come forward after being abused because they're scared. Or they repress the memories until adulthood. Giving victims just a year to sue after turning 18 protects child molesters, they argue.

But so far, efforts to extend the statute of limitations have gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Legislature even though bills were introduced nearly two years ago.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman William Van Regenmorter, a Jenison Republican, says loosening time limits is controversial because supporters want legislation to apply retroactively. California courts are overwhelmed with hundreds of clergy-related cases filed after that state temporarily suspended its statute of limitations for molestation suits in 2002, he says.

Possible problems also exist with suits because so much time has passed, and because the plaintiff's recollections of abuse may be mistaken.

The issue has grown more urgent for victims because higher courts recently reaffirmed that state law requires suits to be filed by the deadline, regardless of allegations that the church tried to cover up abuse by shuffling priests from state to state.

In November, the Michigan Court of Appeals barred the lawsuit of Hassett and two other men who said they were abused by Detroit-area priests. The court also rejected the case of a former altar boy, Patrick Anton, who said a priest outside Flint molested him 30 years ago.

The state Supreme Court is unlikely to reverse the rulings. In October, it let stand a closely watched decision that blocked a man from suing the Archdiocese of Detroit for abuse he says he suffered in the 1970s.

Changing the law is proving difficult, partly because of opposition from the Michigan Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm. Paul Long, the group's vice president for public policy, says he's saddened by abuse claims but thinks legislation would do nothing to protect today's children.

"It is our belief that Michigan's statute of limitations is in the mainstream of national law and serves well its intention of fairness," Long says.

Not everyone in the church agrees.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit traveled to the Ohio statehouse last week to testify in support of legislation that would create a one-year window in which past victims can sue.

During his testimony, he disclosed that he had been molested by a priest as a teen. He's believed to be the first U.S. Roman Catholic bishop to disclose that he was a victim of sexual abuse by clergy.

There's a "strong likelihood" some perpetrators haven't been exposed, Gumbleton said. He added that civil lawsuits are the best way to deter future wrongdoing and to hold clergy accountable, along with the leaders who protected them.

"It might seem easier to keep the evils hidden, to move on and trust that the future will be better," Gumbleton told Ohio legislators. "But I am convinced that a settlement of every case by our court system is the only way to protect children and to heal the brokenness within the church."

Rep. Paul Condino, a Southfield Democrat who was raised Catholic, says his bill to open up a two-year window for abuse suits didn't stem from church-related cases. He was interested in helping women who had been abused as young girls by family members who kept it from the police.

Condino says all victims deserve their day in court.

"Let's let a jury of our peers decide what compensation, if any, should be given," he says. "It's gut-wrenching to hear these stories and not want to try to do something."

John Antos, whose son lost a civil suit against the Diocese of Lansing because he filed it too late, says it's "pathetic" that Michigan hasn't joined states such as California and Illinois in opening up clergy to civil cases for alleged abuse.

"I certainly hope that Michigan comes forward," Antos says. "We pray to God that it will come forward."

The bill to temporarily lift legal time limits for filing sexual abuse civil suits is House Bill 4467.

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