A reader asked about filing a civil case against the Archdiocese of Detroit, a “district” of the Catholic Church covering the Michigan counties of Lapeer, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, and Wayne for knowingly enabling priests who molested and raped children over the years. In the spirit of a true “10 Commandments World,” the entire Catholic hierarchy, from Rome on down would be completely subsidizing organizations like SNAP (https://www.snapnetwork.org/survivors_wisdom?gclid=CjwKCAjwgr6TBhAGEiwA3aVuISTzVsCWUM82_jCi4uOZNtWm3hvORpmXyf9gK-LMJhrBmT645kIDDBoC7VcQAvD_BwE) and RAINN (https://www.rainn.org/national-resources-sexual-assault-survivors-and-their-loved-ones ), and would be barred from ever lobbying against laws designed to protect victims of sexual abuse by “men of God.” But the church lobbies hard for the legal protections it has in the United States.
In 2018 work to change statutes of limitations in childhood sex abuse cases finally got some traction around the country. In general, a statute of limitations restricts the time within which legal proceedings may be brought after an alleged crime or wrongdoing. With a few exceptions, after this time period expires the claim is forever barred and will not be considered by a court. The theory is that the law does not “like” “stale” claims. In more practical terms, over time memories can fade, evidence can be lost and defendants can be unfairly disadvantaged.
Society started to recognize that these laws unreasonably shortened the amount of time for a childhood sexual abuse victim to sue their abuser and an enabling institution, or file criminal charges. This protected predators and their enablers, and in many cases allowed these crimes to continue with other victims. After the statute of limitations passed in these sex crimes, the predator was basically home free. No more looking over his shoulder. The diocese attorneys could relax and deal with the “fresher” cases. The checkbook could be used to pay attorneys and lobbyists with plenty left over as long as they didn’t have to pay victims. Priests could be moved to a different parish instead of to a jail or prison cell.
CIVIL CASES AGAINST PREDATORS AND ENABLING INSTITUTIONS
In 2018, Michigan law was modified to permit a victim of childhood sexual abuse to file a civil suit against a perpetrator and/or an enabling institution until age 28 or three years after discovering the sexual abuse, which ever is later. Previously, a victim was barred from bringing suit after age 19. https://www.alllaw.com/childhood-sexual-abuse-survivors-legal-options/michigan-laws-childhood-sexual-abuse-survivors.html.
This law provided for a temporary (and now expired) “look-back window” which provided for the filing of a civil suit previously barred under the statute of limitations within 90 days, AND:
- The individual was a minor when the alleged sex abuse or assault occurred;
- The alleged sex crime occurred after December 31, 1996, but before June 12, 2016;
- The alleged sex crime consisted of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree; and
- The defendant was either in a position of authority as the survivor’s physician and used that authority to coerce the survivor, or the defendant gave medical treatment or an examination in a manner that is medically unacceptable or unethical. (See above link.)
This is why the Michigan statute earned a “D” rating by Child USA, https://childusa.org/sol/; the physician (Larry Nassar) exception only, the 90 days (seriously??), and cases only dating back to 1996. Furthermore, changing the age from 19 to 28 ignores the documented reality that delayed disclosure in childhood sexual abuse cases is the rule, not the exception, and that the average age at the time of reporting (telling anyone) of such abuse is age 52. https://childusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Delayed-Disclosure-Factsheet-2020.pdf.
Compare this to the law in New Jersey, where the civil statute of limitation for child sex abuse claims against all defendants is capped at age 55 or 7 years after discovering an injury caused by the abuse, even for claims that were already expired. https://childusa.org/law/new-jersey/sex-abuse-sol/. Last month, New Jersey Catholic diocese (Camden) agreed to pay $87.5 million to settle claims involving clergy sex abuse with some 300 alleged victims in one of the largest cash settlements involving the Catholic church in the United States. https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2022/04/19/camden-diocese-sex-abuse-suit-242849?gclid=CjwKCAjwgr6TBhAGEiwA3aVuIS7LV71vwulwUXdOLDxpHTwxdlm_zg3-x5veSPSHT6QTMGPX2QnNNhoCt48QAvD_BwE. The abuse took place from 1950s to the 1990s, much of it in the 1960s and 70s. Of course this settlement claim must be presented to–you guessed it–the bankruptcy court, a place the Catholic church is getting more and more comfortable in.
CRIMINAL CASES AGAINST CHILD SEX PREDATORS
2018 changes to Michigan statutes of limitations laws in criminal sexual conduct cases involving child victims are summarized as follows:
“When sexual abuse or assault is committed against a minor, the amount of time for a prosecutor to file charges will depend on two main variables. These include the severity of the offense and the existence of DNA evidence. The criminal statutes of limitations in Michigan for childhood survivors of sexual abuse are as follows:
- Criminal sexual conduct in the first degree: There is no statute of limitations.
- Criminal sexual conduct in the second degree: The prosecutor must indict the defendant within 15 years after the alleged offense or by the survivor’s 28th birthday, whichever is later.
- Criminal sexual conduct in the third or fourth degree: The prosecutor must indict the defendant within 10 years after the alleged offense or by the survivor’s 21st birthday, whichever is later.
These criminal statutes of limitations change in regards to the existence of DNA evidence. If investigators find DNA evidence of a potential suspect, but cannot identify the suspect, then the clock stops on the criminal statute of limitations. But once authorities identify the suspect, the prosecutor must issue an indictment within 10 years or by the survivor’s 21st birthday, whichever is later.”
Change is slow but steady, I guess. The church will continue to heavily lobby state legislatures, take advantage of bankruptcy laws, hide money overseas and employ cybersecurity firms to mess with victims and those who speak out against it. The Seventh Commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”) will never be modified with a subsection prohibiting rape and sexual assault by anyone–married or not, priest or not–but laws and the treatment of sexual assault victims can continue to evolve to protect victims and society.