DOVER — Catholic church officials in Wilmington havereleased the names of 20 suspected pedophile priests and dedicated theAdvent season to victims of clergy sexual abuse, but state lawmakerssay more needs to be done for victims of child sexual abuse.
Legislatorsplan to pursue action when the General Assembly reconvenes next monthto allow victims of child sexual abuse more time to file civil lawsuitsagainst their alleged abusers.
“We’re still stuck with a lousy statute of limitations, and it needs to be fixed,” said state Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Wilmington.
ANew Castle County judge opened the door for victims a little furtherlast week, ruling that the current two-year statute of limitations forcivil claims does not apply to a man who allegedly suppressed memoriesof years of abuse by a Wilmington priest until 2002, when the churchsex abuse scandal made headlines.
Superior Court Judge CalvinScott Jr. said Eric Eden, who filed his lawsuit in 2004, could pursueclaims against former Salesianum School principal Rev. James W. O’Neilland his religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.
Eden, now in his late 30s, filed his lawsuit within two years of the date he said memories of his abuse surfaced.
Abill introduced by Rep. Lavelle this year would have given a victim sixyears from the date of abuse to file a lawsuit, or six years from thedate of remembering the abuse or realizing he had been injured. Thebill would have applied retroactively, providing a two-year filingwindow for alleged victims otherwise barred from claims because thetwo-year statute of limitations had expired.
Rep. Lavellesubsequently introduced a substitute bill removing the retroactiveprovision and changing the statute of limitations to 25 years after thealleged victim had reached the age of 18. That bill died in the waninghours of the legislative session amid questions about retroactivity andgranting immunity to the state and to school districts.
“Thediocese was opposed to retroactivity and reviving barred claims,” saidBob Krebs, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. “We werealso in favor of the legislation being applied to everyone fairly.”
Rep.Lavelle said legislative analysts estimated that the retroactivityprovision would cost the state about $18 million, and that schooldistricts were concerned about higher insurance premiums.
Rep. Lavelle sponsored, then withdrew, amendmentsbarring immunity for state and local governments and school districts,and allowing retroactive claims against alleged abusers, but notagainst institutions.
“My recollection is that a number oflawyers said retroactivity would be difficult from a constitutionalperspective,” said House Majority Leader Wayne Smith, R-Wilmington.
TheHouse eventually passed the bill with a Lavelle amendment providingimmunity to the state, but not local governments and school districts,and an amendment by Rep. Smith barring claims based solely on recoveredmemory.
The Senate further revised the bill by extending immunity to school districts and allowing retroactive claims against abusers.
Sen.Karen Peterson, sponsor of the Senate amendment, said the immunityprovisions were intended to ensure that public employees acting in goodfaith would not be held liable in child sexual abuse lawsuits.
“Theimmunity ... is really for a public official who is doing their job andgets sued,” said Sen. Peterson, D-Stanton. “Molesting children is notdoing your job. It’s not an official duty.”
Nevertheless, immunity may not be included in a new bill.
“I am not going to give immunity to school districts,” Rep. Lavelle vowed. “That’s an absolute nonstarter for me.”
“I don’t believe there should be immunity for the government,” he added.
Anthony Flynn, an attorney for the Wilmington diocese, agreed with Rep. Lavelle’s approach.
“Ifprotecting children is the point, you’ve got to have everybody liableor potentially liable, so that’s absolutely the right thing to do,”Flynn said.
While church officials are opposed to retroactiveclaims in principle, Mr. Flynn could not say what stance they mighttake on new legislation until they see what is proposed.
“Cases that are 10, 20, 30 years old are just very difficult to adjudicate or defend,” he noted.
AttorneyThomas Neuberger, whose firm is representing Eden, said legislationthat does not include a retroactive or “look back” provision forvictims to sue for past abuse would be inadequate.
“The problem with that is it doesn’t address the issue of all the (current) victims,” Mr. Neuberger said.
Meanwhile,Wilmington Bishop Michael Saltarelli’s decision last month to releasethe names of 20 priests against whom the diocese received substantiatedallegations of child sexual abuse has renewed efforts by victims ofabuse to hold church officials accountable.
“We were very gladto see Bishop Saltarelli’s actions,” said Paul Steidler of Reston, Va.,a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Mr.Steidler said SNAP is trying to persuade the bishop of Arlington, Va.,to follow in the steps of Wilmington and about a dozen other diocesearound the country in releasing the names of suspected pedophilepriests.
Earlier this month, Mr. Steidler and other SNAP memberspassed out leaflets in a Herndon, Va., neighborhood warning residentsthat Rev. Edward Dudzinski, whose name is on the list released byBishop Saltarelli, lived among them.
“To be honest, it shouldn’tfall to deeply wounded child sex victims to alert unsuspecting familiesabout nearby child molesters,” said SNAP national director DavidClohessy.
Mr. Dudzinski lives in the Herndon home with three other people, including Arlene Flanegin and her 10-year-old son.
Mr.Clohessy said such leafleting by SNAP has led to the discovery of otherabuse victims, but Ms. Flanegin said the group was intrusive andunwelcome.
“They put fliers all over our neighborhood,” said Ms.Flanegin, who described Mr. Dudzinski as “a longtime friend andhousemate.”
Attempts to reach Mr. Dudzinski for comment wereunsuccessful. Ms. Flanegin said he told her about his history about twoyears after she moved into the rented home.
“He’s beenrespectful, he’s never been inappropriate,” she said. “I’ve lived hereeight years, and I have no reason to fear for my child.”
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