Uncovering Child Sex Abuse: A Stand-Off with the Catholic Church

This is an excerpt from a longer report in Ms. magazine. To get the whole story, pick up Ms. magazine on newsstands now.

Joelle Casteix was a 15-year-old Catholic schoolgirl in the mid-1980s when a teacher began molesting her. The abuse ended when she was 17, but not, she says, before she contracted genital warts, got pregnant and had an abortion.

At the time of the molestation, Casteix confronted the administrators of her school, Mater Dei High in Orange County, Calif., but says she was asked to keep quiet. Behind the scenes, administrators eventually verified her claims and elicited an extraordinary signed confession from her abuser, who also admitted molesting another student.

But it wasn't until 2005 -- after the original statute of limitations had expired -- that Casteix finally found justice. Thanks to a California law enacted in 2002, she was able to compel the Church to hand over its documents, which allowed her to join a then-record $100 million settlement reached between abuse victims and the Diocese of Orange. Casteix received $1.6 million herself.

The 2002 California law gave victims of childhood sexual abuse a one-year "civil window," allowing those with otherwise expired claims to sue retroactively. Lawmakers recognized it can take years for sexually abused children to confront their abuse -- a task made all the more difficult if the abuser is a religious authority. An estimated 800 litigants took advantage of the window and filed suits, and many of those suits were settled in July when the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay a total of $660 million to 508 victims of priest sexual abuse.

The California law was the first effort to give victims of long-ago abuse their day in court. In its wake, there's been a nationwide push to lengthen inadequate statutes and allow retroactive litigation in other states. (With criminal statutes, at least 25 states no longer have time limits for prosecuting the most serious offenses.) Approximately a dozen states have considered following California's lead and providing a "window" for retroactive civil suits, and Delaware is the latest to approve a statute-extending law with a civil window. Previous Delaware law allowed children only two years from the date of their abuse to bring civil action. "I didn't think it was fair a child would be expected to hire an attorney within two years and sue," says State Sen. Karen Peterson, who sponsored the legislation. "Some of these kids are 5 and 6 years old."

Although such legislation isn't meant to apply only to victims of clerical abuse, opposition has overwhelmingly come from the Catholic Church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops claims not to hold a position on retroactive suits, but bishops' conferences in individual states have lobbied vigorously against them. Last year, a bill proposed by Colorado State Senate President Joan Fitzgerald to extend civil statutes and create a window period was effectively killed after Colorado's bishops hired lobbyists and had letters read in church invoking the fear of bankruptcy and urging congregants to call their representatives. "It was horrific," says Fitzgerald. "They pulled out all the stops ... It seemed amazing to me -- their lack of concern for their flock and their laity."

Fitzgerald, herself Catholic, believes that concerns about unfair suits and Church bankruptcy are red herrings. The real agenda, she thinks, is to insulate Church leaders from further public scrutiny over abuse and cover-ups. Bishops are required by Church law to keep records of scandal secret, so documentation of abuse often remains in files controlled by top diocesan officials. Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), agrees with Fitzgerald that bishops' real fear is having these documents exposed. "More than anything else, they are fixated on avoiding depositions and courtroom testimony where they'll be treated like regular citizens instead of royalty, and where they'll have to explain decades of secrecy and recklessness and corruption," Blaine says.

Retroactive civil action affords a unique opportunity to identify perpetrators who escaped criminal penalties and may still be abusive, says Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law and author of God vs.The Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2005). "If you don't extend the statute of limitations and you don't create a window, it's just a given you won't know about 90 percent of the perpetrators out there," says Hamilton, who has testified in several states on the constitutionality of retroactive civil windows.

SNAP's Blaine refuses to accept a system that lets child abusers -- and those who protected them -- off the hook. "Many prosecutors are timid and many laws are antiquated," she says, "so [Church] cover-ups will stay covered up unless child sex victims are given a chance to seek justice and expose crimes in court."

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