Abuse survivors want chance to prosecute
Washington bill would end time limit for child sex abuse cases
Michael Ross, co-founder of the Spokane chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), testifies Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
OLYMPIA -- The pain of childhood sexual abuse doesn't go away after a few years, one victim after another said Tuesday.
The voices, the gripping hands, the cries, the threats -- they remain, as years turn into decades, and the child grows into middle age, they said.
So it's grossly unfair, victims told a state panel, that Washington allows a statute of limitations for such crimes.
"I'm 58 years old, and I can tell you it does not end," said Grace Simmons, a Portland woman who said she was sexually abused by a cousin, two uncles and a soldier while growing up on the Olympic Peninsula.
In childhood sex abuse cases in Washington, criminal prosecution must begin within seven years, or before the child turns 21, whichever is later. Lawsuits must be brought within three years of the crime, or discovery of an injury such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
"There are too many institutions that sit, lay low, and run out the clock," said Suzanne Brown, with the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.
Some lawmakers want to throw out that clock. A bill in the state House of Representatives, HB 1040, would remove any time limit for lawsuits involving future cases of childhood sexual abuse. Maine and Alaska have already done that, and California just opened a one-year window for cases previously closed by its statute of limitations. An estimated 400 lawsuits are being prepared in California as a result, according to the Associated Press.
"This type of conduct is not going to be tolerated anymore," said Washington state Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace. He said he wants to put the Catholic Church and other institutions "on notice" not to ignore future abuse allegations. Reps. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Brad Benson, R-Spokane, are co-sponsoring the bill.
Many abuse victims want lawmakers to go one step better and make the bill retroactive, to allow people abused years ago to file lawsuits against their abusers and officials who tolerated the abuse.
"We have so many people who can't be helped by this," said Michael Ross, a co-founder of the Spokane chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Nearly 50 people have come to the group, telling of past abuse by priests or other church officials, and most are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, Ross said. For most, the statutes of limitations expired long ago.
"In essence, it gives a 30- or 40-year free pass to molesters," said David Clohessy, SNAP's national director. "You don't see a lot of 6-year-old girls walking into the police station. Kids are incapable of knowing that they're hurt and that they have options, until well into adulthood."
Being able to take abusers and institutions to court, he said, is tremendously healing for victims. They get a chance to tell their story to the court system and expose the abuse, even if the abuser himself is dead.
A related bill, HB 1054, is slated for a hearing Thursday. Sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, the proposed law would require members of the clergy to report any suspected abuse or neglect of children, although anything said in a church confession is exempt. Teachers, doctors and nurses are already included under such a law.
Ross said people in Spokane come up to him frequently, telling of long-ago childhood sexual abuse and wondering what they can do.
"They whisper to me at funerals and weddings," he said. "They don't have an avenue to come forward. They need to have this voice. Unless they have legal remedy to come forward, they will forever be silenced."
"In many ways, this bill is the cheapest law enforcement possible," Clohessy said. "It enables people to take it upon themselves to get child molesters exposed and removed."
Church officials in Spokane couldn't be reached for comment late Tuesday afternoon, and an attorney for the Spokane diocese had no immediate comment on the bill.
But Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, questioned whether making the bill retroactive would allow a wave of lawsuits that would overwhelm institutions like the Catholic Church.
"Do we want, as lawmakers, to set up a system that is almost invariably destined to bring these institutions financially to their knees?" she said.
If the bill is made retroactive, insurance industry lobbyist Basil Badly said insurers shouldn't be held liable for misconduct that took place long ago.
"We have policies that were issued 40 years ago that have been closed," he said. Any restitution should come from the pockets of abusers and institutions, he said, not their former insurance companies.
Several victims said that taxpayers end up paying for many of the problems linked to childhood sexual abuse, such as drug treatment. Others said it's not about the money; that they just want a chance to expose their abusers in court.
"It took away my childhood," said Tom Stewart, an Enumclaw, Wash., man who said he was abused for a decade by his Boy Scout leader in Federal Way, Wash. "It's very difficult to move on."
• Rich Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at [email protected]