Missouri Rep. Eyes Reform for Sex Abuse Victims

News: US News
by Kristine Christlieb  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 21, 2020   

New proposal would repeal current statute of limitations

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ST. LOUIS (ChurchMilitant.com) - The average victim of child sexual abuse does not come forward until he is 52. That's one of the reasons Missouri may join a growing number of states eliminating the statute of limitations in these civil cases.

House Bill 1411, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Solon (R-Mo.), would repeal current law that requires sex abuse victims to file any civil action within 10 years of reaching age 21 or within three years of the date the victim discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the illness or injury behind the civil suit was caused by childhood sexual abuse, whichever occurs later. A public hearing on the measure was completed on Jan. 14.

When Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced the findings of his statewide investigation of clerical sex abuse in September 2019, 163 priests and other clergy were accused of sexual abuse. Of that number, 83 are deceased. Of the remaining 80, more than half fell outside the statute of limitations, making them ineligible for civil action.

At the end of his report, Schmitt made five recommendations for reform; none suggested following the lead of other states and eliminating Missouri's statute of limitations.

At an October 2019 press conference, David Clohessy, a Missouri resident and spokesman for the international organization Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), expressed frustration with the report.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt

As Church Militant previously reported, Clohessy told the media, "We are simply asking Missouri legislators to do what Schmitt has refused to do, which is to push for reforms in secular laws to better protect kids. ... He [Schmitt] admits there are dozens of cases he can't prosecute because of Missouri's statute of limitations."

The trend to eliminate the statute of limitations on these cases has gone global. Last week, the Mexican Conference of Bishops called for the repeal of statutes of limitations in their country. But in the United States, Catholic bishops have aggressively lobbied against any reform.

They aren't the only constituency resisting reform — so are insurance companies and certain youth organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, which is on the verge of bankruptcy for reasons not dissimilar to those of the Catholic Church.

The Washington Post reported in September:

It has been a tumultuous time for the Boy Scouts of America. Youth membership has declined more than 26% in the past decade. Then, last year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would be cutting ties with the organization. ... Over the past decade, victim lawsuits and media investigations have revealed thousands of internal Boy Scout documents, detailing generations of alleged abusers accused of preying on vulnerable scouts. An investigator hired by the Boy Scouts revealed in January that her team had identified 12,254 victims and 7,819 perpetrators in internal documents from 1946 through 2016.

At the state's public hearing on House Bill 1411, the Missouri Conference of Catholic Bishops did not testify in opposition to reform on this occasion, but they have previously. The bishops' objections typically centered on protecting due process for the accused, including priests.

Experts say victims can wait decades to report sexual abuse for a variety of reasons:

  • They blame themselves for the abuse and feel guilty
  • They think no one will believe them
  • They are protecting their families from what they see as a scandalous situation
  • They want to protect the institutions responsible for the abuse
  • They don't fully remember what happened to them until years later

The latter situation — "repressed memories" — is the most controversial. Representative Solon told the St. Louis Post Dispatch she believes repressing memories are a survival technique for victims: "Sometimes in order to survive, they had to forget. I believe personally that the mind and soul of children are protected by God for their survival."

At the public hearing on House Bill 1411, one victim who was assaulted at knifepoint by the assistant principal at a Marianist high school, St. John Vianney, in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood testified that he buried the memory of the incident until he was 35.

The trend to eliminate the statute of limitations on these cases has gone global.

Opponents of reform have legitimate concerns about repressed memories. In recent months, priests and former priests in the dioceses of St. Louis, Sacramento, Corpus Christi, Lubbock, Youngstown and Detroit have filed lawsuits of their own claiming to be falsely accused of crimes from decades past. The American Psychological Association's (APA's) position on repressed memories is that they cannot be distinguished from false memories without corroborating evidence.

Clohessy says the APA's position doesn't trouble him. He does not think repressed memories of clergy abuse victims are like the daycare abuse panic of the 1980s or alien abductions.

"In the 30 years I've spent working with clergy abuse victims, in cases that pass all the legal hurdles, like the statute of limitations, and go forward, the corroborating evidence eventually surfaces, either in church records, in similar testimony from other victims or confession of the abuser," he said.

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