Diocese challenges sex-abuse law change

Thursday, March 4, 2004


Diocese challenges sex-abuse law change
Defendants say move a tactic to delay 11 lawsuits
Related stories

Virginia de Leon
Staff writer

In an attempt to dismiss 11 lawsuits alleging clergy sexual abuse against 40 victims, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane is challenging the constitutionality of a 1988 change in state law.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the diocese filed a motion in Spokane County Superior Court asking a judge to determine whether the Legislature was wrong to broaden the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse victims.

Attorneys for the diocese argue that the move is strictly a constitution

al issue -- one that affects the right of every citizen.

Before 1988, victims of childhood sex abuse couldn't be older than 21 to file a claim. That year, legislators agreed that victims are often silenced by the abuse they endured and don't recognize the scars that linger into adulthood. So the Legislature changed the statute of limitations, allowing victims up to three years after the time they learn of the abuse to file a suit.

Earlier this year, a key House committee unanimously approved a bill to extend the deadline from three years to 10 years.

"If the Legislature can infringe a constitutionally protected right of one class by retroactive legislation, it can infringe the rights of every class," attorneys for the diocese wrote in the motion.

Victims and their supporters, however, are outraged.

"It demonstrates that Bishop Skylstad is part of the problem," said Tim Kosnoff, an attorney representing dozens of victims. "He doesn't accept personal or institutional responsibility for the horrendous harm and the crimes that were committed by the priests of the Spokane Diocese."

In a press release, Bishop William Skylstad said he is still committed to reaching out to all victims and to bring about healing by resolving credible claims of abuse. At the same time, he said that filing this motion "expedites the process of bringing all the claims of abuse closer to a final resolution."

He also spoke about his responsibility to continue the diocese's ministries in Eastern Washington, "and as long as this cloud of undefined financial liability hangs over us, it is difficult at best to plan for the future in the interests of all."

Attorneys for the diocese -- Greg Arpin and Mike Geraghty -- stressed that the bishop has a responsibility to everyone in the diocese, including victims and other parishioners. Altogether, the roughly 40 plaintiffs want millions of dollars in settlements, diocese attorneys said. The five insurance carriers responsible for coverage during the time the abuse cases took place are not willing yet to provide settlement money, they said.

In their motion, the diocese lawyers also point out that "as time passes, evidence becomes less trustworthy as witnesses die or disappear, documents are lost, and memories fade or are colored by intervening events and experiences" -- thus preventing events from being portrayed accurately.

All but two claims filed against the Spokane Diocese happened 30 years ago or more, said attorneys for the diocese. Until 1988, none of these lawsuits could have been filed. In his declaration to support the motion, the Rev. Steve Dublinski -- vicar general for the diocese -- said that many of the people who would have information on the allegations are either dead or unavailable.

The bottom line for the diocese, however, is the constitutionality of the Legislature's decision to broaden the statute of limitations. It violates due process by depriving defendants of vested rights, the attorneys wrote. They also contend that it violates the separation of powers doctrine.

"While the legislature is always free to amend a statute prospectively, it may not retroactively apply an amendment" to go against a court's "judicial construction of the statutory scheme that existed prior to the amendment," the attorneys wrote.

Michael Pfau, attorney for several of the victims, said that any party to a lawsuit has the right to assert any legal defense, no matter how technical. "But it is another thing to publicly express sympathy for victims and then order your lawyers to move for the dismissal of their claims," he said.

The bishop "should be ashamed of himself," said Kosnoff.

Kosnoff believes the diocese's motion is part of a tactic to delay litigation. The Archdiocese of Seattle filed a similar motion earlier this year. That hearing, which involves a client of Pfau's, will take place today in King County Superior Court.

By challenging the constitutionality of the 1988 change, the Spokane Diocese will "tie up the cases in the Court of Appeals and delay closure and compensation for the victims," Pfau said. A resolution could take years.

Molly Harding, co-founder of the local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, expressed her disappointment.

"The bishop's actions speak louder than his words," she said. "He's not trying to help the victims."

Geraghty said that the diocese isn't sidestepping any moral obligation to victims because it will continue to provide counseling and other support. In his press release, the bishop repeated his plea for victims to come forward so that the diocese can help them.

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