MADISON — Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, archbishop of Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC), spoke at a public hearing Jan. 12 at the State Capitol against a bill that would, if passed, repeal the statute of limitations for all civil suits filed by childhood sexual abuse victims.
Senate Bill 319 and its counterpart AB-453, currently in committee in the State Assembly, would also create a window for suits previously barred by the statute of limitations. The current statute, amended in 2003, allows child sexual abuse victims 17 years past their 18th birthday to bring a case to civil court against their perpetrator or the perpetrator’s employer if the assault occurred due, in part, to the employer’s negligence.
The sponsors of the bill, Assembly Rep. Joe Parisi (D-Madison), and co-sponsor Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), have said that the bills are about justice for victims and about identifying perpetrators of sexual abuse against minors.
But the WCC, the bishops’ voice for public policy, opposes the proposed legislation. Despite its support of the 2003 legislation, which also listed clergy as mandated reporters and clarified that victims may sue religious organizations for negligence, the WCC said these two bills go too far.
Won’t do what it says
“You have heard the bill’s authors, and you will hear others today, tell you that the objective of this legislation is to hold perpetrators accountable, to promote justice, and to prevent future abuse,” Archbishop Listecki said during testimony at the public hearing held by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, Insurance, Campaign Finance Reform, and Housing. “Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t do what those individuals say it will do.
“Namely, this bill does not hold perpetrators accountable. No one will be arrested. No offender will go to jail or go to prison because of this legislation,” he said.
Unlike when a perpetrator is convicted in criminal court, there would be no list of offenders revealed by civil court cases. Since 2004, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has posted a list on its Web site of the archdiocesan priests, living or deceased, who are restricted due to substantiated reports of sexual abuse of a minor. The archbishop said he believed that list to be unparalleled by public schools or other public or private institutions.
Targets Catholic church
What the bill would do – “something that everyone will go out of their way to tell you they don’t want it to do,” Archbishop Listecki said – is target the Catholic church.
“We need only to look at Delaware, where similar legislation resulted in more than 80 percent of the cases in litigation being brought against the Catholic church,” he said. “We know from statistics that, certainly, Catholic clergy do not make up 80 percent of the offenders in this societal atrocity. In fact, during Assembly Committee testimony this past November, supporters of this bill testified that, indeed, Catholic clergy make up only 1 to 2 percent of child abusers. Yet the Diocese of Wilmington, the only diocese in Delaware, filed for bankruptcy.”
Testimony during the hearing also noted the legislation’s potentially unjust impact, particularly on private institutions.
According to a WCC issue brief, current law provides that any person intending to bring an action against a public entity would have to file a notice within 120 days of suffering the injury and also caps the liability to $50,000 per person. For governmental bodies there is also a statutory bar against punitive damages, which are often the largest component of civil lawsuit awards. Therefore, if the bills were passed unamended, a public school system might be liable for only $50,000 in a suit, whereas its parochial school counterpart could be liable for millions.
The WCC, along with others testifying at the hearing, have also argued that the window allowing cases extending past a victim’s 35th birthday to be brought to court makes it difficult for parties to gather evidence in a reasonable time.
As well, lawyers representing state and national civil justice organizations called the window’s constitutionality into question during the hearing. When the 2003 legislation extending the statute of limitations was under consideration, a similar window to allow previously barred suits was proposed. Then-Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager had advised legislators that the proposal was constitutionally flawed.
This is the second hearing this session at which Archbishop Listecki has spoken against the legislation. At a public hearing in October for AB-453, the archbishop, then bishop of La Crosse, and Bishop William P. Callahan, then administrator of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, spoke against the bill, as did James G. Birnbaum, the diocesan attorney for the Diocese of La Crosse. Birnbaum also spoke at the Jan. 12 hearing on SB-319. Victim survivors also testified at last week’s hearing.
The WCC is urging citizens to write their legislators in opposition to the two bills. As of publication, neither house in the legislature had yet taken action on the bills.