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Child victims bill to get another try

November 23, 2011

The following story was published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 23, 2011.

By: Annysa Johnson

Lawmakers and advocates for childhood victims of sex abuse are using this weekend’s Badgers game against Penn State as the backdrop for reintroducing legislation that would make it easier for victims to sue their perpetrators in civil court.

State Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) and state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay) said Tuesday that they would reintroduce with bipartisan support the so-called Child Victims Act that has failed at least twice in recent years.

“This is a huge issue – the number of children in Wisconsin and this country that are being sexually assaulted by adults. It’s a tragic epidemic, and we have to step up and do something about it,” said Pasch, who announced the legislation at a Tuesday news conference alongside Lassa and members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

They invoked the Penn State case – in which former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over more than a decade beginning in the 1990s – to bolster their position.

“Survivors of child sexual abuse should not be barred from entering the court regardless of when their abuse took place,” said SNAP’s Milwaukee director, John Pilmaier.

Spokesmen for Legislative leaders Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) said they hadn’t seen the measure and were not prepared to comment on it.

Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which opposed the bill in earlier sessions, echoed their statements.

“I’d have to review the bill, see if anything’s changed,” he said.

Like earlier versions, the new bill would eliminate the statute of limitations in future cases involving the sexual assault of a child by an adult. And it would open a two-year window to refile cases in which victims were previously barred by earlier statutes of limitations – one year shorter than earlier versions of the bill.

Current law bars victims from filing civil lawsuits after they turn age 35.

The measure, which is modeled after legislation passed in other states, failed to make it to the floor in the last two legislative sessions.

Proponents, including victims and statewide police and district attorneys associations, supported the earlier bills, saying they were needed to bring justice to victims, many of whom wait years to voice their allegations.

It drew opposition from insurers, Catholic and Protestant church officials and others on a number of fronts. Among them: that it could bankrupt faith communities and violate suspects’ rights to due process; and that government workers who enjoy sovereign immunity would be treated differently from private employees.

Many of those same arguments are likely to be made this time around. And, as in past years, lawmakers may be reluctant to voice public opposition to the measure out of concern that they will appear soft on those who sexually abuse children.

“I don’t think they’re willing to go on record, because in essence they’d be supporting sex predators,” said Lassa.

Tuesday’s announcement comes as the Archdiocese of Milwaukee works its way through a bankruptcy filed to deal with the mounting sex abuse claims against it. About 100 people have filed claims to date saying they were sexually abused by a priest or employee of the church.

Archbishop Jerome Listecki signaled this week that the church would oppose some of those claims, because they are beyond the statute of limitations, but would continue to pay therapy and counseling costs for victims. That move could potentially bar victims from some of the church’s most notorious offenders, such as the late Father Lawrence Murphy, who is believed to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys over the years, from being compensated through the bankruptcy.

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