Committee OKs bill for sex crime lawsuits

Plan seeks to open window for civil cases against perpetrators

Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A bill that would create a one-year window for lawsuits against perpetrators of decades-old childhood sex crimes passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, despite concerns voiced by an attorney representing Alaska Jesuits.

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Senators gave greater weight to the victims' accounts of their suffering than to the assertion from Anchorage attorney Jim Gorski that the proposal is "a matter best left to the law as it currently exists in the state."

"The goal of this bill is to get access to the truth for the victims," said Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, would temporarily remove the statute of limitations for lawsuits that are currently barred by time constraints. It would affect incidents that happened before 2001, when lawmakers ended the statute of limitations for criminal charges and lawsuits stemming from child sex crimes.

Gorski argued that the statute of limitations has been called vital by the U.S. Supreme Court. He said courts have recognized that adjudication becomes less reliable with the passage of time.

Though California passed a similar one-year window, other states have declined because of a "recognition there's a threat to the legal process," he said.

Other problems arise when cases are presented about incidents that happened so long ago that the perpetrators have died. Of the numerous cases against the Jesuits, there were 15 identifiable perpetrators, he said. Ten of them are dead, some for several decades, which has made it difficult to disprove allegations.

He said the church has offered to pay for counseling for victims, though "it's a question of finding a just result."

"At the end of the day ... it's a question of dollars," Gorski said.

A victim of childhood sexual abuse then testified, having flown to Juneau from St. Louis, Mo., for the sake of appearing for a few minutes before the committee.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who were molested as children and have no legal recourse. The bill would provide a way to get the truth.

"This civil window is the single most effective way to prevent further abuse," Clohessy said.

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.



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