A bill to extend the amount of time victims of sexual abuse have to file lawsuits against their attackers and others who may have covered up the abuse cleared a major hurdle in Virginia this week.
The House Courts Committee voted unanimously on Monday to increase the time from two years to 20 years after about two hours of sometimes heated debate that lasted into the evening. The time limit begins either when the victim turns 18 or, in the case of repressed memories, from when he or she realizes the abuse.
The vote marked a major victory for victims and child advocates who faced off against the Catholic Church, a powerful lobbying force that has tried to keep the time limit low in the face of a priest sex scandal that resulted in numerous lawsuits nationwide. A final vote is expected in the House as early as Tuesday.
The original bill called for 25 years and supporters fought off attempts to change the time limit to eight years.
It wasn’t until the momentum started to sway toward doing away with the time limit altogether following a series of emotional testimony from victims that those who had originally opposed the 20-year provision agreed to it.
Most lawmakers sat rapt as victims — including former NFL player Al Chesley — told stories of being raped or molested as children.
“I still remember the smell of filth and the disgusting cologne he had on even today,” the former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker recounted, at times choking up.
“I’m not a victim anymore. These are tears of joy,” he said at one point.
Chesley said he was raped by a neighborhood police officer three times beginning when he was 13 years old. He said he put the abuse behind him — often with the help of drugs, alcohol and promiscuous behavior — until four years ago, when he was 49.
Others told of abuse by priests, and of burying the memories deep inside for decades.
Becky Ianni said a popular priest in her neighborhood told her that she would go to hell if she told anyone of his advances, which began when she was 9 and lasted two years.
“He would rape me with his hands in my basement then go upstairs and eat dinner with my family,” she said, as some committee members gasped.
Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, urged the committee to keep the time limit under 12 years, as all but six states do. Four of those states have no limit at all.
There is no statute of limitations for criminal prosecution. The bill would only affect the victim’s right to file a civil lawsuit to collect damages.
Mary Devoy, founder of Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia, said the supporters “were all about money and less about justice.”
“In cases of alleged sexual abuse, the burden of proof generally falls on the accused. He is considered guilty until proven innocent,” Devoy said. “In civil cases, this is even truer. It is virtually impossible to prove something did not occur.”
Representatives from the Catholic Church argued it would be difficult for organizations to defend themselves against claims brought decades after the alleged abuse.
“Some extension is reasonable … but we think this has to be done very carefully to balance the interests of all parties,” Caruso told the committee.
But supporters argued that the victim must prove the abuse happened. In order for a third party to be held liable, the victim must prove it aided the abuser in some way.
Mark Herrman, a lawyer for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, said the church has learned from the abuse scandal and put in place measures to keep similar instances from happening again. But extending the limit too long will make it all but impossible for organizations to defend themselves as witnesses die, files are lost and memories fade, he said.
“There is nothing harder than trying to defend an empty chair,” he said.
Some lawmakers suggested making a two-tier system where there is no limit on filing lawsuits against the attacker, but a short limit on organizations, such as the church or youth and sport organizations.
Camille Cooper, a lobbyist with the National Association to Protect Children, shouted to the legislator who proposed the change that it was a horrible idea, drawing a quick rebuke from committee chairman Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax.
Then Cooper read aloud a recent indictment against the Catholic Diocese in Philadelphia that outlined a “known, tolerated and hidden successful cover up” of abuse, saying such instances were reason to hold organizations accountable for abuse. Moments later, Herrman accused Cooper of resorting to “Catholic bashing.”