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Archbishop Chaput’s Point of View

Wednesday, March 29, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput makes the argument that extending statutes of limitations in cases involving the molestation of children may or may not be a good idea, but that it cannot be a good idea when the extension is available only to plaintiffs suing the Roman Catholic Church.

It seems to me that such a narrow statute may in fact violate the Free Exercise Clause as interpreted by the 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith and the 1993 decision in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The llaw is neither neutral in its application, or one of general applicability, so the state will have to defend its act as one of “compelling state interest,” which I think is hard to do when victims of public school teachers are not also extended the additional time to file.

Here is the beginning of a recent interview with the Archbishop. I will ask the Smart Guys this week if they share my Smith/Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye concern:

Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., of Denver is leading a fight against efforts by legislators and trial attorneys to roll back the civil statute of limitations for sex-abuse cases in Colorado. In an email interview with Our Sunday Visitor, he spoke about his decision to vigorously fight what he sees as an unfair attack on the Church.

OSV: What motivated you to take such a strong and public stance on the issue of statute of limitations?

Archbishop Chaput: Statutes of limitations exist for very good reasons that have nothing to do with any Church. Memories fade. People die. Evidence gets old or lost. In general, changing statutes of limitation or making them too long is a bad idea, and most law enforcement professionals know that.

Of course, certain crimes are so terrible, like murder, that no statute of limitation is warranted. Some people argue that the sexual abuse of minors is such a crime. Catholics don’t necessarily oppose that approach. Many Catholics are parents. They very rightly sympathize with victims and want to protect their own children. But the Catholic community does insist that all such laws, reporting timeframes and penalties apply equally to everyone and every institution, with no hidden escape clauses.

Unfortunately, most state laws don’t treat public and private entities equally when it comes to claims arising from the sexual abuse of children. In almost every state, public officials use a combination of governmental immunity, very brief reporting timeframes and very low financial damage caps to make it difficult for anyone to sue public institutions ‘” including public schools.

Religious and private institutions enjoy no such lop-sided protections. The evidence now shows that public schools are a major environment for adult sexual misconduct and abuse with minors. But most state laws effectively ignore that.

In Colorado, under current (February 2006) law, a parent whose child is sexually abused in a public school is barred from suing the school because of governmental immunity. Even if a public school waived its immunity, which is unlikely, the child would have only 180 days to provide formal notice of a claim against the school. And even then, the maximum damages the child could recover are only $150,000.

For the identical sexual abuse in a Catholic parish, there is no immunity, no notice requirement, no $150,000 damage cap, and a much longer statute of limitations. This is why the litigation industry ‘” and that’s exactly what it has become; a very lucrative revenue-producing industry ‘” targets private institutions and ignores the public sector. There’s no money in suing public schools.

By the way — and this is important — keep in mind that we’re really talking about two different law codes, criminal and civil, when discussing statutes of limitations.

Criminal statutes of limitations can’t be changed retroactively. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that as unconstitutional. They can be modified or abolished in a go-forward fashion, but that’s a much less heated discussion.

In contrast, some courts have ruled that civil statutes of limitations can be abolished or changed retroactively. Civil law also has a much lower threshold for proof. So what’s happening is this. The litigation industry, which especially focuses on suing Catholic institutions, is working to change the civil laws across the country and impose massive financial damages on Catholic and other private institutions ‘” retroactively. They claim it’s about justice, but it’s very hard to see why it would be ‘just’for innocent Catholic families today to have their community crippled because of the actions of evil or sick individuals 25 to 60 years ago.

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