Delaware Senate Votes to Repeal Time Limit on Sex Abuse Suits

April 10, 2007

The Delaware Senate this week unanimously approved a bill allowing victims of child sexual abuse more time to file civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers.

Senators approved the bill on a 19-0 vote after 31/2 hours of testimony from victims of child sexual abuse and legal experts.

The bill repeals the statute of limitations in civil suits relating to child sexual abuse cases and provides a two-year window in which victims of past abuse can bring lawsuits previously barred by the current statute.

If a pedophile was employed by a private or public organization that owed a duty of care to the victim or had some responsibility over the activities of the abuser and the victim, damages could be awarded against the organization only if it is found to be grossly negligent.

Before the vote, Sen. John Still, R-Dover, revealed that he himself had been abused by a teenage family friend when he was six years old.

“I have forgiven that person, but I have not forgotten,” Still said. “… I’m not repressing my memory.”

Supporters of extending the statute of limitations have said that many victims of child sexual abuse don’t report it at the time because of fear and shame. Other don’t comprehend what happened to them until much later, or repress painful memories for years.

Last year, a New Castle County judge ruled that the current two-year statute of limitations for civil claims did not apply to a man who allegedly suppressed memories of years of abuse by a Wilmington priest until 2002, when the church sex abuse scandal made headlines.

Officials with the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington expressed concerns about the retroactive provision included in a similar bill introduced last year, but no one from the diocese spoke during debate on Wednesday.

“I guess they’re saving their arguments for the House,” said bill sponsor Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton.

Peterson said her bill addresses another argument made by the diocese, that state employees would be protected by sovereign immunity and thus not covered by the bill.

“State employees are clearly covered, including school teachers,” she said.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest and former canon lawyer for the Vatican in the United States, was among those urging lawmakers to pass the bill.

Doyle said the Catholic church has put its own power and finances above the interests of victims of sexual abuse by priests, and that children and the vulnerable have been devalued because they are defenseless.

“They are overshadowed by the specter of money and power,” said Doyle, who has testified in sexual abuse cases around the country.

Doyle and Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and expert in child sexual abuse cases, both said that bankruptcy filings by five U.S. dioceses amid civil claims over sexual abuse were made not to protect church finances, but to avoid disclosure of church secrets in civil lawsuits.

Doyle rejected the notion that the bill amounted to Catholic bashing, adding that any institution that would allow and cover up criminal wrongdoing “needs to be bashed.”

“That’s not prejudice; that’s truth-telling,” he said.

Hamilton assured lawmakers that the “lookback” provision allowing lawsuits that were previously barred would not violate either the federal or state constitutions. She also noted that most cases of child sexual abuse do not involve the Catholic church or other organizations, but incest among family members.

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