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Opinion piece

Opinion Piece: Should we put a time limit on justice?

Opponents of S.B. 29 want to let the worst offenders get away with their crimes

Sunday, June 17, 2007

In recent weeks, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington has published a number of articles, letters and editorials purporting to support the objectives of Senate Bill 29, The Child Victims Act, while urging the Legislature to pass amendments that would actually “gut” the bill. The church’s claims about the legislation range from misleading to downright false. The purpose of this article is to set the record straight.

First, some facts about the problem:

1 in 5 children is sexually abused. It’s an epidemic.
The average age of a child-abuse victim is 9.
85 percent of victims are molested by family members or family acquaintances.
Less than 10 percent of victims are molested by clergymen or teachers.
The majority of abusers are white, heterosexual, married men who consider themselves “religious.”
Abusers typically molest between 12 and 77 children.
Delaware law gives abuse victims only two years to sue their abuser for damages.

Last year, I was approached by a representative of the Diocese of Wilmington who wanted to talk to me about my efforts on behalf of child sexual-abuse victims. He said, “Do you realize how much money this could cost the diocese?” My response was, “They should have thought of that when they were allowing innocent little kids to be molested.”

To the church, S.B. 29 is all about the money and keeping its records of cover-ups secret. It should be about the children.

In diocese after diocese, the church hierarchy not only protected known predators, they actually aided and abetted them in committing their crimes by moving them from one unsuspecting parish to another, setting them loose on a whole new batch of innocent children. As one mother said, “They threw our kids to the wolves.” There were the kids at St. Mary Magdalen (two of whom committed suicide), St. Ann’s, St. Elizabeth’s (my alma mater), Our Lady of Fatima and virtually every parish in our diocese.

Our diocese officials knew that children were being raped, sodomized and otherwise molested and did nothing to stop it. Now they are appealing to us, the Catholic faithful, to help them deny justice to our own children. That is unconscionable.

The diocese claims that S.B. 29 isn’t “fair” because it does not allow public employees to be sued. That is absolutely false, and the diocese knows it. Line 12 of the bill specifically includes “public entities” and the state solicitor has confirmed (in writing) that the bill does, indeed, cover public as well as private employees. The diocese has thrown this “red herring” out there in an attempt to garner support from private institutions to gut the bill. Some have fallen for it.

Its argument relies on the notion that people will think that “sovereign immunity” means that public employees cannot be sued. The truth is that public employees are sued all the time (the numerous successful suits against the state police and Department of Correction are evidence of that). The state’s “immunity” simply means that if a state employee performs an act that is a) within his/her discretion to do, b) is done in good faith, and c) is not done in a “grossly negligent” manner, they will have immunity from suit.

I cannot imagine that any court would find that a public employee: a) had the discretion to sexually molest a child; b) molested the child in good faith, or c) was not grossly negligent in his/her duties when molesting the child. That is why the church’s argument on this point is a “red herring.”

The second excuse the church is using is its claim that the bill isn’t fair because in older cases, witnesses have died, records have been destroyed, and the accused could not get a fair trial.

First, the burden of proof in proving a case is on the accuser, not the accused. Therefore, if the witnesses are all dead and the records are all gone, the plaintiff will never be able to establish that the abuse occurred and such a case would never get past the courtroom doors. But the truth is that the Catholic Church does, in fact, have the records — and therein lies their real concern. As Father Tom Doyle testified in the Senate, canon law requires that the church keep such records and, as he said, the Catholic Church is the best record-keeper in the world.

The third excuse the church has used is that the diocese could be “forced into bankruptcy” if this bill passes. Why would the Wilmington Diocese be “forced into bankruptcy” when the church has not been “forced into bankruptcy” anywhere else in the country?

The church is banking on Catholics’ not understanding the difference between Chapter 7 bankruptcy (liquidation of assets) and Chapter 11 bankruptcy (reorganization).

The church routinely chooses to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the last minute before a child sexual-abuse case is scheduled for trial. It pulls this legal maneuver to shield its assets and its records of cover-up from the plaintiffs. This maneuver has nothing to do with the church’s ability to pay claims — and not one diocese in this country has been “forced” into bankruptcy.

During a public forum on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, District Attorney Lynne Abraham said that the reason there is no statute of limitations on murder is because murder is so “unspeakably evil.” So, too, she said, is child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse kills children’s innocence, their souls, and robs them of their childhood. Its effects last a lifetime.

The diocese would have us believe that this matter is all behind us now and that they are voluntarily “taking care of” the victims. The truth is that this matter is far from over for the “kids” who were raped, sodomized and molested 20, 30, and even 40 years ago. They can tell you every single detail about the molestation, no matter how long ago it occurred. Those who didn’t turn to suicide or drugs to escape the psychological pain are like the “walking wounded” or, as one victim described himself, “the walking dead.” They fill our prisons, our mental-health clinics, our Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and our divorce courts in disproportionate numbers. Allowing the diocese to decide how to compensate its victims would be like the courts allowing the convicted criminal to decide his own sentence.

The law needs to change and it needs to change drastically. Those who preyed upon our children and those who were complicit in those crimes need to be identified and brought to justice.

Right now, child molesters in Delaware are “home free” two years after their crime. Senate Bill 29 would make it clear that child molesters will never again be “home free” in Delaware.


State Sen. Karen Peterson represents the 9th Senatorial District.


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