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Victims Want Bishop To Lobby For Abuse Suits

Jan 25, 2003 | Arizona Republic

Valley victims of sexual abuse by priests want Bishop Thomas O'Brien to support changes in state law that would allow them to file lawsuits for molestations that occurred decades ago.

The changes, which have yet to be proposed to the Legislature, would bring Arizona in line with California and other states that have modified or are considering modifying their laws to give molestation victims greater rights.

Paul Pfaffenberger, president of a Valley victims support group, said the changes will be outlined in a pair of petitions his organization will circulate outside St. Mary's Basilica in Phoenix on Monday when O'Brien celebrates an annual Red Mass for legislators, judges and attorneys.

One petition calls for removing the statute of limitations on civil cases involving sex crimes against children. The other supports changing state law to make it a felony for church officials to fail to report allegations of sexual misconduct.

"Signing this petition would be a tangible way for Bishop O'Brien to show his support for victims of abuse," said Pfaffenberger, head of the Valley chapter of SNAP, the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests.

Phoenix Diocese spokesman Cristopher Gunty avoided comment on the SNAP proposals but repeated O'Brien's support for victims.

"Sexual misconduct with a child by anyone is a terrible crime and one that has been vigorously prosecuted in Arizona for years," Gunty said.

Joining O'Brien at Monday's Mass will be William Cardinal Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, one of the most aggressive Catholic Church leaders in dealing with sexual abuse.

Last September, Keeler called sexual abuse of children by clergy "the spiritual equivalent of murder" and identified 83 priests and former priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors in the Baltimore Archdiocese since the 1930s.

Bills drafted

Valley SNAP members said Friday that they hope their petitions will build support among lawmakers.

Bills are being drafted and will be submitted this session, they said.

SNAP wants the Legislature to remove any statute of limitations on civil suits for child sexual abuse and make the change retroactive, allowing anyone ever abused as a child to bring suit.

Sen. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, said the proposals will be welcomed.

Giffords said Arizona lawmakers and voters have been aggressively dealing with sex crimes against children.

Two years ago, the Legislature removed any statute of limitations on criminal sex-abuse cases. Last November, voters approved a proposition that denies bail to anyone charged with molesting a child.

"I believe the Legislature is willing to change the civil statute so there wouldn't be a statute of limitations," she said.

Giffords said lawmakers likely would support sweeping changes because the problem of abuse cuts across society.

"These changes aren't aimed specifically at priests," she said. "This is aimed at anyone who sexually abuses a child. As we have seen in so many heinous cases, children tend to repress those memories, and it's often years before they confront them. They should be allowed to sue."

Richard Treon, a Phoenix attorney who has represented several victims of sex abuse by priests, said he is drafting a statute-of-limitations proposal that would be less sweeping than the California law or the one SNAP advocates.

Treon proposal

Treon's measure would lift the statute of limitations for victims whose abuser was convicted, pleaded guilty or acknowledged committing the offense. Failing that, the Treon proposal would give victims until their 28th birthday to file suit against their abuser or their abuser's employer.

Civil statutes of limitation currently stop at age 20 for victims abused as children. Adult victims must sue within two years of the offense.

California legislators lifted the statute of limitations on child sex-abuse lawsuits for a year, beginning Jan. 1.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest who has testified before several grand juries about sex abuse in the church, said the one-year suspension could lead to up to 500 lawsuits seeking as much as $500 million in damages against the 12 Catholic dioceses in California.

Larry Drivon, a California attorney, said the survivor community in California hopes the law will be a model.

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