Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Statute Of Limitations Bill Withdrawn

Statute Of Limitations Bill Withdrawn; Emotional Issue Lacked Support In House And State Senate
By Christopher Keating on April 30, 2010 2:28 PM Courant

A highly controversial bill that would extend the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases was officially withdrawn Friday - ending an emotional debate at the Capitol for this year.

The measure's chief proponents were unable to garner enough support in the House of Representatives and the Senate for the second straight year, but they promised they will try again in the future.

Sen. Mary Ann Handley, a Manchester Democrat who is not seeking re-election, said she could not say how many votes she had in the 36-member Senate.

"You're running a marathon, not a sprint,'' Handley said. "I'm retiring, but I'll be back on this issue. I'll tell you that.''

The bill was directly related to the allegations of child sexual abuse against Dr. George Reardon, who worked at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford from 1963 to 1993. The bill, though, never mentioned either the hospital or Reardon by name. The measure cleared ranked among the most controversial and emotional bills facing the legislature this year.

The defeat of the bill represented a major victory for St. Francis and the Catholic Church in one of the most heavily Catholic states in the nation.

"I'm happy that it is withdrawn because we thought it was a horrendous bill,'' said Michael Culhane, a spokesman for the Connecticut Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops at the state Capitol. "The retroactivity of the bill is just terrible. It would be my hope that an effort would be made to resolve these issues, but I'm not part of that process.''

During a public hearing on March 17, an attorney for the Catholic Church said the bill was unconstitutional.

The bishops had said publicly that the passage of the bill would have had a devastating financial impact on the church and parishes around Connecticut.

"It is a fact that there are seven or eight dioceses across the country that have filed for bankruptcy because of this issue, so that's a possibility, not a fact going forward,'' Culhane said. "Based on the experience of the church dealing with those dioceses, that was a possibility.''

Neither Culhane nor any of the legislators could provide a definitive answer Friday on whether there will be a settlement or resolution of the lawsuits against St. Francis Hospital before they are scheduled to go to trial.

But trial lawyer Michael Stratton, the leader of the firm that is handling the cases of about 55 clients in cases involving Reardon, said the civil cases are expected to go to trial in March 2011. Stratton ripped lawmakers, saying they had backed off from voting on the bill for political reasons.

"Not allowing this to come to a vote is bad public policy,'' Stratton said in a telephone interview. "I think it's an election year, and Democratic leaders didn't want to expose their members to a hard vote. ... Our leadership in the House and Senate doesn't have the courage to do the job. ... This bill was killed by insiders.''

Even though legislators would not publicly say how votes they had in favor of the measure, Stratton said that the bill would have passed if a vote was taken.

"We had the win in the House,'' Stratton said. "We had the votes. We had a 10, 15-vote plurality, at least, in the House. ... We were told we had the votes in the House, and we were down four in the Senate.''

In the 151-member House, 76 votes are needed for passage, and the House count was "around 70'' and never as high as 91 that Stratton mentioned, legislators said.

Regarding the continuing nature of the legislation, Stratton said, "This will come back every year like a bad dream for these legislators.''

Stratton directly blamed House Speaker Christopher Donovan for failing to bring the bill to a vote on the House floor. He said he would rather have seen a vote that lost than have no vote at all.

But Rep. Beth Bye, a West Hartford Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, and Rep. Michael Lawlor both said emphatically that Donovan had not blocked their efforts and had not prevented the bill from coming to the floor. Lawlor, a veteran lawmaker who has been involved in many controversial issues, said Stratton was wrong about Donovan and wrong about the vote count.

"Donovan had nothing to do with it one way or another,'' Lawlor said Friday night. "He wasn't involved. In terms of the Speaker, absolutely no involvement.''

When told that Bye had not blamed Donovan, Stratton would not change his position. "He's the one who calls items to the floor,'' Stratton said of Donovan.

The bill has now failed for two consecutive years at the Capitol. A version last year never made it out of committee, but this year's version was approved, 23 to 20, by the judiciary committee. But insiders knew that the bill was in trouble because highly controversial bills traditionally need a wider margin of support in the judiciary committee if they are going to be approved by the full legislature.

Bye, a co-sponsor of the bill, initially declined to reveal the exact vote count in the House, where 76 votes are needed for passage. But she said Friday night that there were "around 70'' votes in the House.

Capitol insiders said the measure clearly lacked the votes in both chambers.

House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk, who has handled zoning cases as an attorney, said he opposed the bill because it was so narrowly written that it would only affect one hospital - St. Francis.

"Spot zoning is illegal,'' Cafero said Friday. "It was carefully crafted to affect one particular case.''

If a victim had been molested by a doctor at Norwalk Hospital and there were no other pending cases or claims, then "they are shut out from suit'' in the bill, Cafero said. "That's wrong.''

Cafero, who had previously described Reardon as "a piece of garbage,'' said Friday that he was "an animal.''

Reardon died in 1998, but the case arose when evidence surfaced in 2007 after a homeowner renovating Reardon's former West Hartford home discovered a cache of more than 50,000 slides and 100 movie reels of child pornography.

While the case and the bill focused on Reardon and the hospital, other groups that are not directly involved in that case lobbied against the bill and contributed to its defeat. Among them were the Insurance Association of Connecticut and the American Tort Reform Association, which raised concerns about changing the statute of limitations. The judiciary committee's influential co-chairman, Sen. Andrew McDonald, voted against the bill at the committee level because of his concern about the statute.

The defeat of the bill does not end the cases of the 56 plaintiffs who are aged 48 or older. Plaintiff attorneys are pursuing various legal theories in an attempt to get around the statute of limitations for those cases, but those arguments could be difficult to win.

Barbara Blaine, President of SNAP, which is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said lawmakers had made the wrong move by opposing the bill.

"Even if every single person who was sexually assaulted by Reardon in childhood gets some kind of settlement, that doesn't absolve lawmakers of the duty to protect children by giving victims the chance to warn families about predators through the justice system,'' Blaine said in a statement. "We commend the courageous and compassionate abuse victims who have worked so long to safeguard the vulnerable and heal the wounded through this legislative effort and hope they will have the strength and persistence to push even harder next session.''

SNAP notes that, although the word "priest'' is mentioned in the group's title, it includes "members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations,'' including rabbis, Protestant ministers and bishops.

While Stratton strongly blasted the legislators for the bill's failure, another attorney in the case - Tim O'Keefe of Kenny, O'Keefe and Usseglio in Hartford - said there was actually more progress than expected this year, including the positive vote in the judiciary committee.

"Quite honestly, I'm surprised how much progress we made this year,'' O'Keefe said. "We're going to keep going on it. We'll be back.''

O'Keefe volunteered that the case is not about trial lawyers who are simply trying to make a massive pay-day against a doctor who has been dead for more than a decade.

"People think the motivation is the greed of a lawyer,'' O'Keefe said. "I'm a citizen, and I've got kids, too.''

No comments: