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State Could Allow Suits Over Old Sex Abuse Claims

Feb 24, 2006 | AP Colorado lawmakers are considering following California's lead and allowing victims of alleged sex abuse to file lawsuits years after the fact a move the Roman Catholic Church says could weaken its ministry and hurt parishioners.

State Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, a Democrat and a Catholic, wants to suspend the statute of limitations for two years a year longer than California and allow people who say they were sexually abused at private institutions to file suit even if the alleged abuser is dead.

In California, a one-year statute suspension led to about 800 lawsuits against the Catholic Church, including more than 500 against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"I'm personal witness to lives being saved because of this law, which allowed victims to have recourse through the courts," said an attorney representing dozens of people who filed claims in California. Many of her cases were settled -- including 33 in a $38 million deal with the Diocese of Orange in Orange County but others against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are still pending.

She said the settlements have helped victims by giving them money to get treatment for addictions to drugs and alcohol that sometimes follow abuse, as well as a chance to help prevent abuse in the future.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese did not respond to requests for comment. Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference the church's lobbying arm criticized California lawmakers for passing what he called "irresponsible and punitive legislation" aimed against the Catholic Church.

There was no discussion about capping attorneys' fees to make sure victims benefited from the suits and no benchmarks set to weed out meritless claims, he said.

"The reality tends to be that it ends up penalizing, in order to respond to the victims, all the people who support the church now and the leaders," Dolejsi said.

In Colorado, Fitz-Gerald said she has been surprised by the church's strong opposition, because no lawmakers in California voted against the measure in 2002. She said she began thinking about changing the statute of limitations when she read newspaper reports last summer about Colorado men who said they were abused by a priest.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has urged Catholics to push lawmakers to change or defeat Fitz-Gerald's bill and two others related to sexual abuse.

Fitz-Gerald, who said she contributed to the construction of Christ on the Mountain Catholic Church in Golden, said she isn't targeting the Catholic Church but said "if the shoe fits, you've got to wear it."

"The protection of children comes before the protection of assets," she said.

Dolejsi said that church officials have a difficult time defending themselves against cases from 20 and 30 years ago, with some of the alleged abusers and witnesses dead.

"It's pretty much throw it out and there see what happens," he said of the lawsuits.

Dolejsi also criticized the California law because it didn't also open state government to lawsuits for past sexual abuse in public schools a criticism also made against the Colorado proposal.

During a long and emotional hearing in Colorado this month, an attorney for the Colorado Catholic Conference presented lawmakers with files on 85 teachers who had been disciplined since 1997 for everything from sexual assault to showing pornography to students.

One of the other sex abuse bills has been changed to lift the statute of limitations for both public and private institutions and, if that becomes law, Fitz-Gerald believes that would mean her bill would open up both private institutions and public schools to lawsuits.

Through his assistant, state education commissioner William Moloney declined comment, saying he doesn't discuss pending legislation.

Denver archdiocese spokeswoman Jeanette De Melo said it's difficult to predict what would happen if the law is changed, noting that Colorado's proposal would allow lawsuits to be filed for two years instead of just one in California but that Colorado is a smaller state with fewer Catholics. But if there were a lot of lawsuits filed, she said it could affect the church's ministry.

"This could in the long run could affect the people in the pews because it affects the church they support and the services they use," she said.

No dioceses in California have filed for bankruptcy protection because of sex abuse cases, although three dioceses in other states have Spokane, Wash., Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore.

Earlier this month, the Spokane diocese reached a $45.7 million settlement with 75 people and Bishop William Skylstad head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed to push for the abolition of the statute of limitations on sex crimes and give victims a chance to speak to parishioners, among other conditions.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he thinks far fewer suits would be filed in Colorado than California because its population is smaller and because some victims may think it's not worth suing after church promises to reform.

Claims that the church will be financially hurt are a red herring aimed at scaring Catholics, Clohessy said.

"Bishops don't fear this legislation because of the money. They fear it because of the secrets," he said.

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