Victims of childhood sexual abuse testified before the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, urging lawmakers to create a one-year window for lawsuits against perpetrators of decades-old sex crimes.
The legislators were stunned by accounts of people such as James Niksik of Saint Michael, a village on the east coast of Norton Sound.
"I was sexually abused by a deacon," Niksik said. "I tried telling my father once, and he beat me."
Most of the victims blamed leaders of Catholic organizations in villages.
Two psychologists, one attorney and six abuse victims urged the senators to pass the legislation. Nobody spoke against the bill, but Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, who sponsored it, said there would be another meeting Monday to hear from the Catholic Church.
"In fairness, I had to hear from both sides," French said.
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The Most Rev. Michael Warfel, bishop of the Diocese of Juneau, was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment. Chip Wagoner, executive director of the Alaska Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was aware of the committee meeting but declined to comment.
"We have no position on this bill," Wagoner said.
The bill would allow past victims the rights they would have if the incidents had happened under current law, French said.
The statute of limitations on civil and criminal cases involving child sex crimes was eliminated in 2001. In other words, a lawsuit can be filed at any time over abuse committed after 2001.
Before then, lawsuits had to be filed within three years of the incident or the recollection of the incident. There was a 10-year limit on criminal charges.
French said he introduced the bill because of the horrors he witnessed as a former prosecutor of child sex crimes.
"I think there was an injustice done when we changed the law in 2001," French said after the testimony. "We left a group of victims without an opportunity to go into court."
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Much of the support for the bill came from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a nationwide group commonly known as SNAP. The organization's Southwest regional director, Joelle Casteix, shared a story about her litigation against the Diocese of Orange in California, made possible when California passed legislation similar to that under consideration in Alaska.
The California diocese ultimately settled 87 cases for $100 million, she said. The cases prompted other victims to come forward, leading to criminal charges.
Elsie Boudreau, who said she was abused in Nome about 30 years ago, described how many times she wished her pain would go away. She said a priest singled her out from her friends and started French-kissing her. For years, she did nothing.
"It was only when my daughter was 10, the same age I was when I was abused, that I could no longer shield it from my consciousness," Boudreau said.
"He was a priest," she said. "He was not just any priest, but a family friend and a father figure. ... It was only after I filed the claim that he was removed from the ministry."
She ultimately settled her case for about $1 million, she said before her testimony.
Niksik told the senators about his problems with alcohol abuse and crime, which he blamed on being abused by a church deacon. He said he could not forgive the church for bringing the man into his village.
"There were many others in my village who were abused by this deacon," Niksik said. "Some are still hurting today, like me. They're hurting too."
Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a psychologist who addressed a national conference of bishops about sex abuse in 2002, described reasons that victims do not talk about their abuse. Some feel responsible and some split the event from their consciousness, she said.
Others fear the retaliation they could face if they take action against powerful figures or organizations.
"The window bill gives survivors a motivation to take this risk," Frawley-O'Dea said.
After the committee meeting, Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, described the victims' testimony as "heart-wrenching."
"It provided a very clean record for why you don't want a statute of limitations for these kind of sexual abuses," McGuire said.
Ken Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.