A bill filed in the Kentucky Senate would remove statutes of limitations on lawsuits alleging felony child sexual abuse allowing people to sue alleged abusers and their employers no matter how long ago abuse might have occurred.
The bill would be retroactive and could have a dramatic impact on the 200 lawsuits pending against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville, according to legal observers.
It could lower the legal hurdles that plaintiffs face in seeking damages for alleged abuse dating as far back as the 1950s, and make it easier for plaintiffs to sue individual defendants, in addition to the church and civic and governmental organizations that employ them.
The bill was filed by Sen. R. J. Palmer II, D-Winchester.
Sen. David Karem, D-Louisville, one of the co-sponsors, said it is primarily aimed at the cases of people who allege they were sexually abused as children by clergy, although it would apply to all abuse cases.
He said the volume of cases pending against the Archdiocese of Louisville has heightened awareness of the scope of the problem.
”I think it is very compelling public policy to look at this issue and provide some relief to victims,” Karem said.
Palmer said he decided to sponsor the bill in hopes of making organizations such as the church more accountable. ”I think it’s just time we sent a message at least in the state of Kentucky that we’re not going to tolerate harboring a molester,” he said.
Karem said he expects debate on the matter, but ”there’s a good shot that some form of this will get through.”
Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Drift, also co-sponsored the bill, which is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, did not return a call seeking comment.
A similar law took effect Jan. 1 in California after passing unanimously in that state’s legislature. It temporarily lifted statutes of limitations for one year and is expected to result in hundreds of new lawsuits against Catholic dioceses in that state.
Vincent Senior, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the church’s lobbying arm, said yesterday that he doesn’t believe it will oppose lifting the statutes of limitations.
”We think about the victims, too,” he said. ”We obviously want to get the issue behind us.”
But Senior said his organization, which represents Kentucky’s four dioceses, is concerned about other sections of the bill, which would require a clergy member to break the confidentiality of confession by another clergy member to report to authorities any confession of child sexual abuse.
”That obviously goes against our faith,” he said.
The Senate bill’s provision on confidentiality in a clergy-to-clergy confession is more limited than that of a pending House bill, filed by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington. Westrom’s bill would effectively require clergy to break the confidentiality of anybody’s confession, if necessary, to report child abuse, which all citizens are required by law to report.
Archdiocesan spokeswoman Cecelia Price said yesterday that the archdiocese would defer comment about the proposed law to the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.
Under the statutes of limitations established in Kentucky current laws, an alleged victim of child sexual abuse can only file a lawsuit against the accused perpetrator within five years after turning 18, or against the perpetrator’s employer within one year after turning 18.
Virtually all lawsuits against the archdiocese date back further than that. Attorney William McMurry, who represents more than 175 of the plaintiffs, is arguing that statutes of limitations don’t apply because he contends the archdiocese knew about the alleged abuse and covered it up.
”What is so vitally important in this legislation is that it eliminates the need to establish that there was knowledge about a particular priest that was not reported to the police in order to overcome the statute of limitations issues,” McMurry said.
McMurry also said it would make an easier path for approximately 40 of his plaintiffs, who allege abuse before 1964, the year Kentucky first passed a law requiring all citizens to report child abuse to police.
”It would eliminate any discussion of whether the victims from 1964 on had better cases than victims before 1964,” he said.
The bill is ”a fantastic piece of legislation,” said Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, a Louisvillebased national organization that advocates on behalf of victims of sexual abuse by clergy. Archibald said many victims don’t come to terms with their trauma for years or decades afterward.
”There’s no statutes of limitations for the burden and suffering that the victims carry,” she said.
Bill Bowen of Benton, Ky., founder of a support group for victims of sexual abuse with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, also supported the bill.
”It’s about time,” said Bowen, head of the group Silentlambs. ”All states should enact the same legislation.”
Samuel Marcosson, an associate law professor at the University of Louisville, said the bill would make a ”huge” difference in such lawsuits.
The bill would ”broaden the current ability of a plaintiff to file a lawsuit because there would be no need to make any showing about concealment” by a church or other employer, Marcosson said.
And it could enable plaintiffs to file suits directly against the alleged perpetrator, he said. Currently most lawsuits against the archdiocese name only the church as a defendant, not the individual priests accused of abuse.
The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said her organization does not have a formal position on the statutes of limitations, but she said it remains skeptical of efforts to remove the clergy-confidentiality clauses. The council represents 10 Protestant denominations as well as the Catholic Church in Kentucky.
Spokesman J. R. Brown of the New York-based Jehovah’s Witnesses said the church would follow any new laws passed by the legislature.
”We do recognize that it often takes years for a victim to come forward for many different factors,” said Brown. ”If legislators feel that more time is needed (in statutes of limitations) and this will work to benefit a victim, then we would see this as something that could work to the advantage of many.”
Brown said the church prefers to have clergy-confidentiality laws remain but would follow any state laws requiring the reporting of abuse.
As reported by The Courier-Journal in 2001, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been accused in lawsuits around the country of concealing sexual abuse by its members. Church officials have disputed such claims, saying they obey all laws requiring the reporting of child abuse and do not interfere with police investigations.
Kentucky has no statutes of limitations for criminal felonies, which has enabled prosecutors to charge two priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville Louis E. Miller and James Hargadon on allegations of decades-old abuse. A third priest, Daniel C. Clark, is also awaiting trial on allegations of more recent abuse.