Monday, November 15, 2010

Michigan victims 2
Victims of childhood sex abuse by priests face tough legal battles in Michigan

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Part 2 of 2

Victims of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests have a harder time getting justice or compensation in Michigan courts than in other states.

Although several states have relaxed their statutes of limitations, Michigan's remains one of the most restrictive.

Sexual abuse victims have until their 19th birthday to file a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages in Michigan for past abuse. Catholic leaders in the state have continuously opposed legislation that would relax the statute.

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"It's a difficult state for the victim. It's a great state for the perpetrator," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University.

The cost of compensating victims could devastate local dioceses if victims have more time to sue. Seven dioceses across the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy because of sexual abuse lawsuits. California dioceses paid nearly $1.3billion in damages after the statute of limitations was suspended for a one-year window in 2003.

"There's no doubt that extending the statute of limitations could be very costly for the church," said Charles Zech, who heads the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University. "That has to be balanced against considerations of what is the right thing to do.

"What would Jesus do?"

Mich. victims have short suit window
Two bills that would have allowed victims of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits decades after the alleged abuse were introduced in the Legislature this year, but they have gone nowhere.

State Rep. Deb Kennedy, D-Brownstown Township, who introduced such legislation in the House, was defeated for re-election this month. However, state Sen. John Gleason, D-Flushing, said he will reintroduce the legislation next year and stage town hall-style meetings around the state for victims to tell their stories.

Gleason's bill would allow victims up to age 38 to sue for past abuse.

Michigan provides a very short time frame for a victim to bring a lawsuit seeking damages against a perpetrator. Victims can sue within two years of the abuse. If the abuse happened when the person was a child, the victim has until one year past his or her 18th birthday. Victim advocates say most people who were abused as children don't come forward until decades later.

"There's no question that Michigan is one of the most restrictive states in the country," when it comes to seeking redress for victims of abuse, said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University.

The statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges has been revised in Michigan.

Before May 2001, there was a six-year statute of limitations for bringing charges, or by age 21 for the victim. That six-year clock, however, stopped ticking if a defendant moved out of state, and local prosecutors were able to bring abuse cases against four men who worked as priests in the Detroit area because they had moved out of state after the alleged crimes.

In 2001, Michigan abolished the statute of limitations for first-degree criminal sexual conduct cases -- but only for future crimes. The law was not retroactive.

Other states raise age limits
In other states, publicity surrounding the Catholic priest abuse scandal has made it easier for victims to bring a civil suit over past sexual abuse. In Oregon, victims now have until age 40 to sue over abuse suffered as minors. In Pennsylvania, the age is 53, and Ohio gives victims until age 30.

"It's truly not about the Catholic Church. It's about these kids," said Kennedy, whose bill would raise the age to 48 and also called for a onetime two-year window with no age limit for suing.

But opponents, led by the Michigan Catholic Conference, fear opening the floodgates to millions of dollars in claims. They have fought the change. Since California passed legislation in 2002 to open a one-year window for victims to sue for past abuse, Catholic dioceses there have paid $1.3 billion in damages.

Across the country, officials have paid $2.7 billion in settlements and related costs, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Archdiocese of Detroit has paid about $4 million in claims since 1950.

Claims brought by abuse victims have led seven Catholic dioceses in the U.S. to file for bankruptcy.

When the Spokane, Wash., diocese declared bankruptcy in 2004 over sex abuse claims, officials sold its chancery building and the home of the retiring bishop to raise cash. To raise $48 million to pay 184 victims of abuse, the diocese liquidated nearly all of its assets in 2007. Parishioners donated $10 million to pay the debt, and several parishes put up their facilities as collateral for loans, in case the diocese couldn't raise enough.

In August, the Diocese of Lansing acknowledged paying $225,000 in an out-of-court settlement to a man who said he was abused as a 5-year-old in the 1950s by a long-dead priest. Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea said it was cheaper to settle with the man than wage a court fight, although Boyea also said the diocese likely would have won in court because of the statute of limitations.

Victims need financial help
Critics of the Catholic Church's handling of the abuse crisis say victims and their families deserve financial help to deal with the aftermath of the abuse.

Onetime Michigan altar boy Patrick Antos lives in a Utah jail cell today, after being convicted of a robbery to support a drug habit. His family says he was victimized by a Catholic priest who said mass at Flushing's St. Robert Bellarmine church in the Lansing diocese.

Antos, 48, has struggled with drug abuse since he was a teenager and suffered from depression and anxiety, according to family members. When they sued Catholic church officials, their case was dismissed in Michigan courts.

Antos' father, John Antos, 77, said without changes in the law, victims like his son will suffer their entire lives.

"The victims are ruined forever. And they have no recourse," he said.

Though the Antoses lost their lawsuit, they later met with Boyea, who sent them a check for $6,000. Patrick Antos had been released from prison and was re-establishing a truck driving career. He's back in prison now in Gunniston, Utah, for parole violations, and is due to be released next May.

Among those who say they have paid a price for challenging church officials on this issue is former Detroit Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton. In January 2006, Gumbleton broke with the Catholic hierarchy when he called for changing laws to give victims more time to sue.

Gumbleton went to Ohio to lobby for a one-year window with no age limit for lawsuits, which was opposed by Ohio's Catholic bishops. Speaking at an Ohio news conference sponsored by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a victim advocate group, Gumbleton revealed that he had been inappropriately touched by a priest when he was a teenager in the seminary.

Several months later, Ohio passed a bill to give child abuse victims up to age 30 to sue. Within the year, Gumbleton was removed as pastor of St. Leo Parish in Detroit.

Gumbleton said he believes his dismissal from St. Leo was punishment for his advocacy.

"If the bishops handled the cases in the right way in the first place, they wouldn't have to pay that money," he said. "They refused to talk to victims. They had no recourse except to go to court."

He added: "I think about it... a lot. It was the right thing to do, and I don't regret it."

Ned McGrath, a Detroit archdiocese spokesman, said the statute of limitations is designed to assure fairness.

"To date, Bishop Gumbleton has never reported his allegation of abuse directly to the Detroit archdiocese. He never told us the name of the person he's accused. He's only spoken publicly about it," said McGrath. "An argument could be made that this is a good example of why a statute of limitations is important in our legal system. This is a nonspecific complaint against an individual who is long since dead."

Dave Maluchnik, a spokesman for the Michigan Catholic Conference, said the conference could support extending the statute of limitations for future cases, but he won't say until what age.

Maluchnik said it's unfair to expect any entity to defend itself against accusations that date back decades, when some of the people involved have died and memories have faded. "We will oppose any measure that would seek to retroactively extend the statute of limitations," he said.

Gleason walked 50 miles from his home parish -- Flushing's St. Robert Bellarmine -- to the state capitol over three days last May to draw attention to a bill to extend the statute of limitations. He walked to bring attention to Antos' case and that of another person molested by a priest.

Prosecutors were able to bring a criminal case against the man because he had left Michigan shortly after the molestation occurred in the 1970s, stopping the clock on the six-year statute of limitations.

"As a Catholic, I'm disgusted," Gleason said.

He said he knows the families of the two victims. "They're very bitter over what happened.

"I've talked to some of those kids, and they have no life. I talked to parents who are concerned that their children are going to commit suicide. They're just not whole."

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