Bill Would End Time Limits for Abuse Suits

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The D.C. Council would abolish the statute of limitations for filing criminal and civil cases that involve sexual abuse against children under a bill proposed yesterday by council member Marion Barry.

The legislation would allow the indictment of abusers in decades-old crimes and would give victims the ability to sue all parties involved in the abuse.

The proposed change in D.C. law is similar to legislation enacted in California that led to prominent cases involving abuse by Roman Catholic priests.

In the District, the measure would not only extend the time limits for criminal and civil cases but also "provide a two-year period for people whose claims were barred by a previous statute of limitations to bring those claims," according to the bill's text.

Barry (D-Ward 8) said the intent is to prosecute cases in which victims of child sexual abuse do not come forward until they are adults. "Childhood sexual abuse, by its very nature, is secretive," he said.

There are 15- and 10-year time limits for criminal child sex abuse cases in the District, depending on the type of abuse. The city applies a three-year statute of limitations on all civil claims, although a child sex abuse victim has until his or her 21st birthday to file a claim.

The legislation could have significant monetary consequences. When California lifted its statute of limitations on sex crimes against children in 2003, more than 1,000 lawsuits were filed. The dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange counties later settled lawsuits totaling $160 million.

In contrast, the Archdiocese of Washington has spent $6 million on sex abuse cases, including a $1.3 million settlement to 16 victims in December. The archdiocese covers the District and Montgomery, Prince George's, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties, and includes 140 parishes and about 580,000 members. Since 1947, the archdiocese has documented credible allegations from 132 people against 28 priests, according to Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman.

A majority of the council joined Barry's cause yesterday.

Advocates for victims and attorneys have been lobbying in various jurisdictions to implement similar legislation. Last week, a measure on opening a two-year window for civil cases died in the Maryland state Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee in an 8 to 2 vote.

Although Maryland has no statute of limitations on criminal complaints and Virginia has no time limit on felony criminal cases, both states have restrictions on civil claims brought by victims.

In Virginia, a special law allows adults to file a claim within two years of recognizing the abuse they suffered as children through a licensed professional, such as a psychiatrist.

In Maryland, a victim has until his or her 25th birthday to file a claim stemming from abuse suffered as a child.

Gibbs said the archdiocese supports Barry's plan to eliminate time limits on criminal cases. However, the archdiocese does not believe in extending the time limits for civil cases because of false claims and the complications of retroactive claims. "There's the ability for people to come forward and the ability to respond," Gibbs said. "The bar is not as high [in a civil case]. If you are going back 50 years, you don't know what happened, the person may be dead."

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