Florida’s legislators are set to consider a bill that would open up a two-year period for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits against the Catholic Church and other institutions, even though the allegations are too old to file under current law.
The bill also would make priests mandatory reporters of abuse allegations, like teachers, social workers and health professionals, and it would take away the confidentiality of the confessional. If a priest heard about abuse allegations while taking a confession, he would be required to call the state’s abuse hotline.
The proposed sweeping changes to Florida law mirror a shift around the country, as more details about the sexual abuse scandal flow from church documents, grand jury investigations and civil suits. At least 15 states are considering changes to their laws to extend the time prosecutors have to file criminal charges against sexual predators or to give abuse victims more time to recognize the harm done to them and seek civil damages, but the bill does not affect criminal prosecutions.
“This is pretty far reaching. It covers a lot of ground, and it makes some significant changes in longstanding Florida law,” said Jay Howell, a Jacksonville child-advocate attorney who helped found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the bill being sponsored by state Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach.
“As we have found out in the recent church scandal, there is a great societal interest in reporting and finding child abusers to make sure they are not in a position to abuse again,” he said.
Gannon’s bill isn’t finalized yet and likely will undergo revisions in the legislative process. Although victims already can sue abusers and institutions for damages, Gannon’s bill would add another avenue for them by specifically opening up institutions to lawsuits when they owed a duty of care to the victim and acted wrongfully or negligently in preventing the abuse. Only new cases would fall under that part of the bill.
Florida law currently requires victims of child abuse to file lawsuits by the age of 25. The law also allows victims time to recognize the harm that has been done to them. In those cases, they have four years after the discovery to file suit. The bill sets a two-year period beginning Jan. 1, 2004, when cases that are now precluded by the statute of limitations could be filed.
“We believe the institutions are as responsible for what has happened to our kids as the perpetrator. They did nothing to stop the abuse from happening,” Gannon said. “I think this is an important public policy issue to ensure that our children our safe. As a Catholic, I think we have been harmed by the actions of the church, and it needs to be cleaned up.”
The lifting of the statute of limitations would not only apply to religious organizations, but to state agencies such as the Department of Children & Families, said Gerard Glynn, a professor at Barry University School of Law in Orlando who heads the school’s children’s legal clinic.
“There certainly has been misconduct by clergy of all faiths, but that does not mean we are going to have a flood of claims,” he said. “There may be some other institutions that are more concerned, including the state of Florida and the Department of Children & Families.”
Barbara Blaine, the founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said children rarely report the abuse when it happens and can only relate their experiences years later, often in mid-adulthood.
“By that time, it’s too late to bring any charges or bring any claims because of the statute of limitations,” she said. “Certainly offering the window of opportunity for people who previously could not file [civil suits] is only an appropriate response to allow justice to be done.”
The provision that establishes the two-year window is similar to one passed last year by California legislators, which established a one-year period for the filing of such cases. California church leaders now say they will face hundreds of lawsuits that previously couldn’t have been filed.
Larry Divon, a trial attorney from Stockton who won a $30 million judgment against the Diocese of Stockton in an abuse case, drafted the legislation.
“Legislatures across the country are in one stage or another of looking at this. We were in the forefront out here in California,” he said. “The critical mass that this issue has achieved over the last year has really emboldened a lot of people to come forward who really didn’t feel like they could before. They have found they are not alone and have a lot of company. Public opinion has changed dramatically.”