Reacting to mounting claims of clergy sexual misconduct, South Florida legislators are working on legislation that would require church officials to report allegations of child abuse, give victims more time to file lawsuits and allow law enforcement to prosecute older cases.
“It’s a very, very serious issue that usually has lifetime consequences for the children involved,” said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. “I think we really need to take a look at whether the current law, as it stands, really punishes the people committing these sexual abuse acts or whether technicalities are allowing abusers to go unpunished. I don’t think the community will be satisfied if there’s one technicality after another allowing people to get away.”
If Klein and others are successful, Florida would join a growing list of states taking legislative action to protect the rights of children molested by clergy. New York legislators recently introduced a bill adding clergy to the list of professionals required to report sexual abuse. California unanimously passed legislation allowing victims to sue the church years after the abuse, and this week Massachusetts legislators began considering eliminating the statute of limitations to prosecute rapists.
In Florida, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office is drafting legislative language at the request of state Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach. They want to add clergy to the list of people required to report abuse allegations and extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting child abuse.
While State Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Edmondson could not elaborate on the details of the proposed legislation, he said a draft is expected to be completed within two months.
Klein, meanwhile, wants to ask the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to research current laws regarding statutes of limitation for filing claims of child abuse, and determine how other states are responding to the problem. If necessary, Klein said, he would support an extension of the time limit for victims to file suits.
Current Florida law requires victims of child abuse to file lawsuits by the age of 25 or four years after they discover “the causal relationship between the injury and the abuse.” Attorneys representing clients who have filed just under a dozen lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami in recent months say they have turned away people with credible claims because the statute of limitation has expired.
“I have a case where the person was abused at the age of 5 by a nun, but the person is now long past 25 years old,” said Paul Lipton, with the Miami office of the law firm Greenberg Traurig, which has handled hundreds of clergy abuse cases. “The statute cuts the legs out of any lawsuit.”
If all goes as planned, Gannon said she would sponsor the bills, which she expects will be heard in November. But she predicts getting them passed “is going to be a tough fight.”
Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Miami archdiocese, said she could not comment on the bills without seeing them, but raised concerns about requiring priests to report any claim they hear — even during confession. Church law dictates a priest is “bound not to repeat what he hears in the confessional,” she said.
State Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, said he was not optimistic about the chances of lengthening time limits for filing lawsuits and prosecuting molesters.
“The reason for having a statute is, at some point in time there needs to be certainty. Witnesses die and memories fade.”
Others, like Broward Assistant State Attorney Dennis Siegel, said prosecutors are wading through cases turned over by the archdiocese. Although expanded limitations would not be retroactive and applicable to past cases, he insists the time frame for taking action should be extended to 15 to 20 years after children reach 18.
For Lipton’s client who was abused by a nun at age 5, and countless other victims who have no legal recourse, expanding time limits for filing suits would bring some comfort.
Lipton read from a letter his client wrote: “I don’t mean to sound corny, but the damage I experienced at 5 is analogous to breaking a piece of china and putting it together with crazy glue. The crack will always be there and the painful memories I have of what was supposed to be a safe place for children.”