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Justice for the Abused?

by Michael Brendan Dougherty

Sitting in the pew for Mass at St. Mary's in Norwalk, Connecticut, I was offended. After the deacon chanted "Ite Missa est," our pastor took to the lectern to inform us that Connecticut was considering a revision of their laws that would retroactively eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual abuse of minors, currently 30 years, the longest in the nation. Our priest was going to ask us to vigorously oppose the law.

"Let justice be done!" I thought of shouting back at him. I'm sick of the Church hiding these creeps under their mitres. And I was not alone: Andrew Sullivan and Kim Stagliano of the Huffington Post were both horrified upon hearing that the bishops in Connecticut oppose this law. But as I later discovered, the Church in Connecticut is right to oppose this bill. It discriminates against the Church and does little for the great bulk of victims of pedophilia.

When the bill, HB-5473, was approved by the judiciary committee, its sponsor, representative Beth Bye, said, "Today was a victory for the victims of child sexual abuse in Connecticut . . . . I think it was a spirited debate, and in the end, given the very serious nature of these crimes, legislators voted on the side of allowing the victims to have access to the courts."

This is a lie. Most victims of sexual assault during childhood in Connecticut will not have access to the courts, because their tormentors were public school teachers who are exempt from the new law. Connecticut law simply forbids childhood sexual abuse claims against foster care facilities, juvenile detention facilities, public schools, and other government entities.

In the past 18 years, only three Catholic priests in Connecticut are alleged to have committed sexual abuse against a minor. In this same time span, 112 Connecticut school teachers have lost their license because of sexual misconduct with students.

Even in the past year, nine foster parents in Connecticut have been charged with sexual abuse. Foster parents receive a stipend from the state. But their victims cannot sue the state that placed them in their abusers hands.

There are currently no figures for abuse in Connecticut's juvenile detention facilities, but a U.S. Department of Justice study issued in January found that just over one in ten youth (2,370 teenagers) in state juvenile facilities nationwide reported an incident of sexual victimization during the previous year.

Notably, all three of the legal experts giving testimony in support of the bill are currently involved in litigation against the Catholic Church. And the Church is the largest non-public institution in the state.

The legislation was tailored to deal with the notorious case of Dr. George Reardon, a physician at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, who abused hundreds of children from the 1960s through the 1990s. Reardon died in 1998, but in 2007 more than 50,000 slides and 100 movie reels of children were discovered in his former home.

Connecticut's legislature is developing a strange habit of attacking the Catholic Church. Last year the state senate attempted to pass HB-1098, which would have restructured the boards of each Catholic parish, depriving the bishop and pastors of any administrative, financial, or legal power over their parishes. It would have mandated that Catholic parishes govern themselves like Congregationalists. The bill's own language applied only to the Catholic Church. Bill 1098's sponsors were two senators who also supported an effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Connecticut, which the Church had vigorously opposed that year. The current effort has stalled in a legislature coping with a desperate financial crisis. But Rep. Michael Lawlor hopes to reintroduce the bill lifting the statute of limitations next year under a new governor.

Ironically, the basis of Connecticut's exemption for state employees, a principle called "sovereign immunity," finds original legal roots in a Catholic source: a letter of Pope Gelasius I, Duo Sunt, aiming to settle relations between Church and State in the fifth century. Perhaps Connecticut should be reminded of an older Christian principle: "You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye."

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