|Iowa State capitol Building, Des Moines|
The bill would undoubtedly have its biggest effect on clergy abuse lawsuits involving the Catholic Church, which has paid out more than $2.5 billion in damages nationwide because of past incidents involving more than 16,500 victims allegedly abused by religious members.
The Iowa proposal, Senate File 107, is strongly supported by victim advocates, including the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which says the crimes are often psychologically repressed for decades.
"This really becomes kind of a no-brainer when you look at it. It is putting first the children of Iowa and the children who have been victimized," said an adult man only identified as "John," who spoke before the Senate panel about his experience as a victim of child sexual abuse.
The legislation is opposed by the Iowa Catholic Conference and the Iowa Association of School Boards. Lobbyists for both groups contend it could have a huge negative financial effect on Iowa churches and school districts, which would find it nearly impossible to mount a legal defense against such lawsuits long after witnesses have died and records have been destroyed.
The Iowa Catholic Conference, the official policy voice for the Catholic bishops of Iowa, pointed out that the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul was forced to file for bankruptcy in January after the Minnesota Legislature approved the Minnesota Child Victim's Act. The Minnesota law, passed in 2013, opened a three-year window for filing new lawsuits alleging sexual abuse that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations. About 20 alleged victims of clergy abuse have filed civil suits against the Minnesota archdiocese because of the law, and church officials have reportedly received more than 100 notices of potential claims.
"As everybody knows, the Catholic Church has had some painful lessons to learn over the past 20 years," said Tom Chapman, lobbyist for the Iowa Catholic Conference. He noted initiatives within Iowa's Catholic churches to advocate for victims and to provide widespread training to prevent future incidents.
The Iowa bill as drafted "would pose a great danger to Catholic ministries. It will end up hurting people who help other people," Chapman said. The Davenport Catholic Diocese has already gone through bankruptcy as a result of sexual abuse cases involving its priests.
So, who are the people that are helping people? Are they the same people who are helping themselves to defenceless little people?
No vote was taken on the proposed legislation in last week's subcommittee meeting. But Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who is chairing the panel studying the bill, said she plans to discuss the proposal with other senators and will likely schedule another subcommittee meeting. The subcommittee also includes Sens. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, and Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford.
John, the sexual abuse victim who testified before the panel, described child sexual abuse as a "perfect crime for predators" because children often try to repress the horrors of what they have experienced. It's common for victims to be unable to talk about their abuse until their early 40s, which justifies the 25-year window for filing civil lawsuits, he said.
Amy Campbell, a lobbyist for the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said her organization is very supportive of the bill. Once one victim comes forward, it can spur other victims to speak up, she said.
Several other lobbyists said while they have sympathy for victims of child sexual abuse, they questioned the fairness of opening a window for lawsuits they believe will be very difficult to defend.
Emily Piper, lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said her organization is concerned that an entirely new school board and school administration could have to deal with allegations that occurred long ago. It's not fair to impose the legislation upon a future elected school board when it had no input on a how a situation was handled 25 years ago, she said.
Scott Sundstrom, a lobbyist for the Iowa Defense Counsel Association, expressed similar concerns.
The justice system is an adversarial system, which allows both sides to present evidence, Sundstrom said. But under the proposed legislation, an allegation could be made about an incident that occurred decades ago and there would be no evidence available to defend against the claims, he said. That's because employees and witnesses would be gone, and documents that detailed policies and procedures at the time would have been destroyed, he said.
Lisa Davis-Cook, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Justice, said her organization has lawyers on both sides of the issue. She said it's important to recognize that even if the bill is approved to extend the window for civil lawsuits, plaintiffs would still need to prove their cases in court.
Precisely! I don't see how it tips the scales very significantly. Judges would certainly be aware of the possibility of fraudulent suits, and, I assume, would require a significant level of proof that the abuse actually occurred.
The Catholic Church is still trying to avoid the full consequences of their shameless and relentless abuse of children.
What's in the bill
The proposed Iowa legislation to expand the statue of limitations on child sex abuse cases has four key provisions:
• It specifies that victims of alleged child sexual abuse who would be barred from filing civil lawsuits under Iowa's current statute of limitations be given a three-year window to commence lawsuits.
• The time for filing a civil lawsuit relating to sexual abuse of a minor would be extended from the current one year after a person turns 18 to a period of 25 years after a person reaches age 18.
• It provides that a lawsuit for damages for alleged sexual abuse when the victim was under age 14 must be brought within 25 years from the time of the discovery of both the injury and the relationship between the injury and the sexual abuse.
• Criminal charges for sexual abuse in the first, second or third degree involving a person under age 18 must be filed within 25 years after the victim reaches adulthood. The charges must now be filed within 10 years.