Stories of child sexual abuse dominated the headlines in 2011, but because the alleged crimes happened so long ago, few of the victims in those cases were able to sue their abusers.
Now, lawmakers around the country are pushing to extend or waive their states' statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse charges, but the initiative has its opponents — including the Catholic Church — who argue it could unleash a torrent of lawsuits.
Giving A Voice To The Abused
It took almost 30 years, but in December 2011, Richard Fitter finally went public with the allegation that former New Jersey priest John Capparelli had repeatedly groped him in the early 1980s.
Fitter says he first reported Capparelli to another priest in 1992. Capparelli, who denies the allegations, was removed from the ministry. Fitter thought Capparelli was no longer working with children, but he continued to teach in Newark, N.J., public schools until reports detailing a long list of allegations against him appeared last year in the Newark Star-Ledger. When Fitter read those stories, he decided it was time to come forward — again.
"I was satisfied with the fact [that] he wouldn't be around kids anymore, he wouldn't be a danger," Fitter says, "and then to find out 20 years later that that was not true and he has been a danger all this time — it just doesn't sit right with me."
This time, Fitter filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages against Capparelli. But Fitter and his lawyer, Greg Gianforcaro, know his lawsuit doesn't have much chance of success. That's because New Jersey's window to file a civil lawsuit in a child sexual abuse case is short — just two years from the time the would-be plaintiff turns 18. At that age, Gianforcaro says, few victims are ready to talk about the alleged abuse, let alone file a lawsuit. So in the wake of the high-profile stories of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin, Gianforcaro is urging New Jersey lawmakers to reconsider its statute of limitations.
"If we're ever going to find out who these abusers are ... it's through giving men and women who were abused in the past a voice," Gianforcaro says. "And the only way they'll get that voice is if there's change in the legislation."
Legislation In The Works
Lawmakers in New Jersey are considering a bill that would completely eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases, but that bill has some powerful opponents.
Pat Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, testified against the bill at a hearing in Trenton in late 2010.
"The reality is that this proposal simply fosters lawsuits," he said at the time. "How can an institution conceivably defend itself against a claim that is 40, 50 or 60 years old? Statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade."
The New Jersey bill's opponents point to what happened in California in 2003, when the state approved a temporary, one-year window in which the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits did not apply. During that year, more than 800 claims of clergy abuse were filed against the Catholic Church. Delaware followed California's approach, resulting in about 100 lawsuits.
Lawmakers in New York and Pennsylvania are pushing similar bills, which have stalled in the past. Pennsylvania state Rep. Michael McGeehan is sponsoring a bill that would temporarily waive the statute of limitations for sex abuse charges.
"I don't think you can put a timeline on it," McGeehan says. "People come to the realization; people come to a comfort level. And whether it's a year from now or whether it's 30 years from now, I think those people need to be heard."
McGeehan says opponents of his bill have been a lot quieter since the Penn State scandal broke, but his bill — as well as its counterpart in New Jersey — remain very much stuck in committee.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.