Legislators looking to help older victims of priest abuse get settlements

State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-26th District, and other Democratic leaders are working to modify a pending bill so it would eliminate the statute of limitations on the filing of civil lawsuits in cases of sexual assault.

If the General Assembly approves the bill, it is expected to impact the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses, where alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, nuns, deacons and bishops have been prohibited from filing suits after they turn 48.

Victims and their supporters say that for a variety of reasons, some victims do not disclose they were abused until much later in life.

One of the victims is John “Tim” McGuire of New London, who discovered when he went to a lawyer to find out about suing the Diocese of Norwich, that he had missed the deadline for filing a suit by a mere three weeks. McGuire, who alleges he was sexually assaulted by the late Rev. James Curry when he was an 8-year-old altar boy at St. Joseph’s Church in Noank, has been lobbying legislators to eliminate the statute of limitations for himself and other victims.

“This is great news,” McGuire said Sunday, saying he knows of people in his support group of people assaulted by priests who would file suits if the change is approved.

The Day has spoken to a number of alleged victims in recent months who say they too would file suits against the Diocese of Norwich if the law is changed.

“There’s a great injustice here in Connecticut because victims of sexual assault have such a limited opportunity for justice both on the criminal and the civil side. The church needs to take responsibility for its actions,” said Flexer, who described herself as an active Catholic.

She said a number of institutions, including the Catholic Church, have gone out of their way to cover up their actions to ensure victims could not obtain restitution.

The Diocese of Norwich did not respond to a request for comment about the proposal, but Christopher Healy, the executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference and the lobbyist for the Archdiocese of Hartford, said Friday that the archdiocese feels the current law is “fair and just to handle all claims” and there is no need to extend the statute of limitations.

“The archdiocese has worked very hard to settle outstanding claims, but we don’t think that broadening the window will serve the purpose of transparency,” he said, pointing out that fading memories and lack of evidence are part of the reason for the archdiocese’s position.

“There is no demonstrated need or outcry for it to be lengthened,” he added.

Flexer said that she has been working with other party leaders to include language in Senate Bill 3, to eliminate the civil statute of limitations. The bill, which is co-sponsored by Democratic state senators Cathy Osten of the 19th District and Norm Needleman of the 33rd District, currently calls for amending state law “to provide for enhanced prevention of and punishment for sexual assault and sexual harassment.” It is aimed in part at abolishing the statute of limitations for the criminal prosecution of sexual assault cases. Flexer said she hopes to have language concerning the abolishment of the civil statute of limitations, introduced into the bill by the end of this week.

Flexer said she expects the Catholic church to oppose the language and she called that “incredibly disappointing.”

“A lot of these victims come to terms with what happened to them much later in life. I think that’s hard for those of us who are not survivors to understand because we are not child victims,” she said.

“It’s my job to be a strong voice for these victims. It’s important for people to understand why they have had difficulty coming forward,” she added.

Alleged victims interviewed by The Day have said that they waited to disclose what happened to them for decades because they felt shame or thought it was their fault, had been threatened by their attacker, did not know if anyone would believe them, did not want to upset devout family members or are suffering from psychological problems such as PTSD and depression or drug and alcohol addiction.

“The system all around you is engaged in building up the person who abused you and diminishing who you are,” Flexer said.

Healey said the state currently has one of the longest statutes of limitations in the country for filing lawsuits. He said the archdiocese does not oppose eliminating the statute of limitations for the criminal prosecution of offenders.

Since the priest abuse scandal in the early 2000s in the Boston archdiocese, Healey said the Hartford Archdiocese has had a zero-tolerance policy and has successfully sought the criminal prosecution and expulsion of the only two priests known to have sexually assaulted minors during that time. In addition, he said, the archdiocese has had an extensive screening, education and training program for anyone involved in church activities.

Healey, who said the archdiocese is looking forward to reading the language of the amended bill, said he could not speculate on the financial impact that abolishing the civil statute of limitations could have on the church.

The Norwich diocese has paid out $9.5 million in settlements to victims of priest abuse and still faces 22 lawsuits filed by young men who say they were fondled, sodomized and raped by two Christian Brothers while attending Academy at Mount Saint John in Deep River from 1986 to 1996.

Healy said the Hartford archdiocese offers to pay for counseling for those who are not able to file lawsuits due to their age. He said he was not in a position to discuss whether the archdiocese pays settlements to victims who are too old to sue.

“We’re trying to make this thing right,” he said, while ensuring that the church remains a vibrant place for people.

Even if the law is passed, McGuire said that even if victims such as he are allowed to file suits, they will have to be strong, as the church “will put them through “years of hell” before agreeing to pay a settlement.

“The church knows they have (the victims) where they want then,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

 

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