It all began as the Child Protection Act of 2003. Written and introduced to the Washington State Legislature by former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett, the act had a number provisions aiming at protecting children from sexual abuse and trying to frame perpetrators on both an individual and corporate level.
But strange things can happen to potential laws once they hit Olympia. Today the Child Protection Act has turned into several different house bills. That's not unusual.
What may seem unusual is that some of the people the Child Protection Act is trying to help are very upset about what it has become.
Representatives of the organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) went to Olympia to testify before the House Judiciary Committee only to find that the bills were now written in a way that they believe would make it even harder for adult survivors of priest abuse to seek justice.
"If it passes as it is written right now, it would take away the rights of all the survivors that have not already filed a suit," says Michael Ross, a survivor of alleged abuse by a Catholic priest and one of the founders of SNAP in Spokane.
Ross is especially angry at Rep. Patricia Lantz (D-Gig Harbor), the chair of the judiciary committee, for allowing laws intended to help survivors of sex abuse to potentially become laws that could obstruct them.
"She is in the pockets of the church lobbyists and insurance lobbyists, that's the way we see it," says Ross. "She is not taking an even stance on this issue."
Lantz doesn't agree. "I was raised Episcopalian, later attended Lutheran church and am not affiliated with any church right now," she says. "I have great respect for churches and their members and the foundation for society they provide, but I don't know how I could be in their pocket."
As far as the insurance companies go, Lantz says that as chair of the judiciary committee, she gets to work on many issues the insurance companies don't like at all.
"In the supercharged environment that this issue is being debated in, there is very little attention paid to the consequences of legislation," says Lantz. "The legislative process is slow and cumbersome, but it serves us well because we can't ram things through. We take consequences of our actions into consideration."
She says she has lost sleep over these bills and listened extensively to everyone who wanted to testify.
"These people have been hurt badly and their pain is evident," says Lantz. "We have had two very long hearings -- the last one went 45 minutes over. We heard everyone we could hear, to the exquisite pain of everyone involved."
There are a handful of bills currently being worked on in different house committees that could impact adult survivors of clerical abuse. Most of the bills originated in the Child Protection Act, but some were already being worked on when Brockett introduced his legislation.
"One of the sections from the Child Protection Act ended up as HB 1089, which would eliminate the criminal statute of limitation on these cases," says Brockett, who is Catholic. "Another section ended up as HB 1040, which eliminates the statute of limitation in civil cases. There's also HB 1054, which calls for mandatory reporting of sex offenses committed by clergy, and HB 1760, which makes it a felony to render criminal assistance for any sex offense against a child under 18."
House Bill 1760 would also amend the corporate criminal responsibility statute. "A bishop is a one-person corporation, and the covering up of felony sex offenses would make the corporation liable," Brockett adds.
So would abolishing the statute of limitation just make it easier for victims of past abuse to seek justice?
For future victims the answer is yes, but for victims from 40 or 60 years ago, the answer is no.
"The statute of limitation was amended some years ago to say it was three years from the time the person realized that the damage they've experienced was caused by the abuse they suffered," says Duane Rasmussen, the lawyer for Ross and several other plaintiffs primarily against the Catholic Church, adding that the bill SNAP is mostly concerned about is HB 1040.
"That bill was an attempt to remedy the original situation, so what it says now is that we abolish the statute of limitation," he explains. "The problem is that when the law becomes effective, the current three-year statute of limitation will also be abolished."
Many child victims of sexual abuse don't realize the impact their experiences have had on their lives until they are much older, says Rasmussen, who would prefer to see HB 1040 amended so the statute of limitation is left wide open and people can sue for abuse that happened as long ago as record keeping would allow.
"The compromise would be a one-year target of opportunity for anything that happened in the past, and then abolish the statute of limitation for abuse that happens in the future, after the law takes effect," says Rasmussen.
Adult survivors of sex abuse are often denied the right to file a criminal suit, yet they can file a civil suit within three years.
Brockett says he understands the concerns of victims like Ross about the changes in the bills, but sees no reason to panic. "Nothing has ended yet. The first deadline we face is March 19. We can continue to work on the legislators until then," he says.
Publication date: 02/20/03