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Opinion piece

Opinion Piece: Delaware Leads the Way on Sex Abuse

By Maureen Paul Turlish
The Philadelphia Inquirer
July 31, 2007

Delaware — On July 10, a history-making event took place in Delaware when Gov. Ruth Ann Minner signed into law what is believed to be the most comprehensive civil legislation concerning the sexual abuse of minors.

Delaware residents, over a period of two years, worked very hard to make the Child Victims Act (Senate Bill 29) a law. It provides for a two-year moratorium on the statute of limitations on lawsuits for sexual abuse. Victims have until July 10, 2009, to seek damages regardless of when the assaults occurred.

There is no question that the signing of this bill will provide the necessary impetus for states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland, and the District of Columbia, to pursue this type of legislation. Victims whose lawsuits previously were barred due to time limits will now have their day of justice in a court of law.

The bill’s primary sponsor, State Sen. Karen E. Peterson (D., New Castle), was a graduate of St. Elizabeth Catholic High School in Wilmington, where I taught for nearly 10 years.

One of my former art students, Jean Lange, testified before the Legislature. As a child, she was sexually abused by her father. Because of her advocacy a few years ago, she was instrumental in getting the criminal statutes regarding child abuse changed, leading to her father’s incarceration.

Along with other victims of childhood sexual abuse and their parents, I was privileged to testify before both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees supporting the passage of this much-needed legislation. Joining me were religious leaders and a constitutional-law expert.

Robert Quill, who testified about his experiences with childhood sexual abuse, was one of the many brave victims I have met. Quill, a former Navy lieutenant and staff attorney for the Atlanta office of the U.S. Court of Appeals, became the first person to file suit in Delaware under the new law on July 12. He is suing a priest, a parish, and the Diocese of Wilmington for sexual assaults he alleges took place more than 40 years ago.

Delaware, the first state, is often described as a state that is “small enough to make a difference.”

We were successful in passing this sorely-needed legislation due, in large measure, to the broad support and non-sectarian makeup of our advocacy coalition, Child Victims Voice (childvictimsvoice.com). Besides individual supporters, the coalition includes almost 100 nonprofits, and various religious denominations, including the Jewish community, particularly the Rabbinical Association of Delaware and Jewish Family Services. Subsequently, there was no way that either the sponsorship of this legislation or the Child Victims Act itself could be described or construed as anti-Catholic. It is very much pro-child.

However, my church, the Roman Catholic Church, should not be moving out of crisis mode, because this crisis is far from being over. One only has to look to recent events in California – which passed a one-year window on abuse cases in 2002 – to realize that. There have been more than 800 lawsuits against Catholic clergy and dioceses in that state. Settlements in those cases have been averaging about $1 million per victim.

The leadership and credibility of the bishops in the United States has been irreparably weakened because of sex-abuse allegations, and it will be decades before it recovers. Some in the Roman Catholic Church believe that church leaders will not be able to recoup their losses.

In other countries around the world – particularly in Italy, Brazil and parts of Africa – sexual abuse by clerics has not even begun to be addressed by either church or civil authorities – let alone abuse by warring armies or family members. This must begin to happen.

In Delaware, we have taken that step.

We know that pedophiles, rapists, molesters and child abusers come from all walks of life and that the sexual abuse of children happens primarily in the home. But here, no longer will organizations that hid or covered up for known sexual predators within their ranks go unpunished. They will be held accountable.

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Maureen Paul Turlish, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, is a Delaware educator and an advocate for changes in child-abuse laws. She formerly was a department chair at Lansdale Catholic and Archbishop Wood High Schools.

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