Windows closing for clergy sex abuse victims to sue Catholic church

Minnesota and Hawaii created windows for abuse victims to file lawsuit even after states’ statute of limitations closed – but their time will be up in April

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In Minnesota, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis filed for bankruptcy last year in the face of dozens of potential sex abuse lawsuits.

The courthouse doors will soon close on victims of clergy sex abuse in Minnesotaand Hawaii when a brief window to bring charges against the Catholic church expires.

Statute of limitations laws have made it nearly impossible for adults who were abused as children to put their claims before a court, even after revelations in 2002 about decades of widespread child sex abuse by Catholic priests.

But in May 2013, Minnesota created a three-year window for past victims of abuse to file child sex abuse lawsuits against the church and other institutions, even after the statute of limitations has closed. This was a life-changing opportunity for people like James Hlavka, who told the Guardian he has “lived hell on earth” since being abused by a priest from age 10 to 15 in the 1960s.

Hlavka, who lives in one of four states that have created such windows, said a chance to appear in court gave him the courage to speak about the five years of abuse that sent him spiralling into a lifestyle of binge eating, starvation, promiscuity, drug abuse and alcohol addiction. This interview was the first time Hlavka spoke publicly about the abuse he suffered, having initially filed his case against the church as “John Doe 117”.

“Had it not been for that statute of limitations window, I would still be living a 40-plus-year lie,” said Hlavka, 63.

Hlavka is due to appear in court in October, months after the deadline to file a child sex abuse lawsuit in Minnesota expires on 25 May 2016. A month earlier, Hawaii’s window – which was extended for two more years in 2014 – closes on 24 April 2016.

There are as many as 100,000 children in the US who have been victims of clerical sex abuse, according to a paper insurance experts presented to a Vatican conference in 2012.

But without these window laws, childhood sex abuse victims are held to state statute of limitations law that have in many cases long passed.

“We went through decades when powerful institutions, including a lot of religious institutions, ignored the signs that children were being sexually abused and finally, we’re turning the tide on that,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law. “The only way we can possibly get justice for these victims is to permit them to revive their civil statutes of limitations.”

Statutes of limitations vary tremendously between states. In New York, for instance, people have until age 23 to bring a childhood sex abuse complaint, and across the border in Connecticut, people can bring such a complaint until they are 48 years old.

State legislators have pushed for wider windows and softened statute of limitations laws, but find themselves up against the Catholic church’s formidable lobby.

Critics say this type of legislation unfairly punishes churches for behaviors of past leadership and does not hold public institutions, such as schools, to the same standard. In Minnesota, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis filed for bankruptcy last year in the face of dozens of potential sex abuse lawsuits.

The Catholic Conference of Minnesota said that questions about the window would be best directed to local archdiocese.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda said in an emailed statement that the archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is working with people in the fields of victim assistance and law enforcement, and others who aren’t in the clergy to ensure they are doing “all that is reasonably possible to prevent sexual abuse of minors”.

“We know that we are powerless to change the past and undo the harm suffered by those affected by abuse, but we are committed to changing the future – in our churches, our schools and our communities,” Hebda said. “It is our unwavering daily objective to create and maintain safe environments for all God’s children and that work will never cease.”

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are proposing a new special two-year window for past victims to sue the church. But Catholic churches have used pamphlets, the internet and editorials to encourage parishioners to contact their state representative and urge them to oppose the proposal.

State representative Mark Rozzi is leading an effort to force a vote on the window bill, as well as a bill that would prevent statutes of limitations in future childhood abuse cases. Rozzi, a survivor of childhood sex abuse, ran for office specifically to get these laws in place.

Supporters of these laws, like Rozzi, say statutes of limitations fail to account for the psychology of childhood trauma, which can take years to disclose because of shame and the victims may be too young to know how to express what has happened to them.

“What we’re seeing is an iceberg of information that’s been frozen because survivors, when they are finally ready to come forward, can’t get into the courthouse,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law.

She said that tearing down statute of limitations laws provides an opportunity to name the perpetrators and protect children.

In Minnesota and Hawaii, the battle for a window has been fought and won. This is why Hlavka, unlike the thousands of unknown victims of childhood sex abuse, will get his day in court.

At his deposition Hlavka plans to recount how from age 10 to 15 he was repeatedly raped by father Michael Skoblik, a priest at his school.

Hlavka will explain how the priest would drip wax on his genitals and commit other acts that he said would not even be found in a pornographic movie.

He will talk about his first attempted suicide at 15, and his second suicide attempt, which caused irreversible damage to his physical health. Hlavka said he now knows to check back in with a mental health facility if he experiences suicidal ideation again, in part because he has started seeing a therapist for the first time when he learned about the statute of limitations window in a newspaper article.

Because of that window, he may also tell the court about the binge eating, starvation, prescription drug abuse, promiscuity and alcoholism – a collection of habits that combined with his most recent suicide attempt, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder have put him on full-time disability.

Hlavka’s parents died not knowing about the abuse, which he believes the community he lived in knew about, but would not discuss.

And that is why he is coming forward, more than two decades after Skoblik died.

“I decided I am not going to let what that priest did to me control my life anymore,” Hlavka said.

Supporters of these windows say that in addition to creating a pathway for survivors to have their day in court, they also offer opportunities for child sex abuse survivors who were victimized by people beside clergy.

In Hawaii, the window has allowed people to file claims against Jay Ram, a man who adopted and fostered children he then abused in the 1980s and 1990s. The boys were removed from his home by Hawaii child protection services but sent back because the case fell apart.

Mike Reck, who is representing Ram’s accusers, said that once the window law passed in Hawaii, the same thing happened there that has happened in any jurisdiction that has had a similar law.

“You had the first brave survivor saying: ‘hey, this happened to me,’ and then other survivors of the same perpetrator who were suffering in silence knew they were not alone and they started to come forward,” Reck said.

This has also been the experience for Hlavka, who is concerned about the expiration of Minnesota’s window law.

“I wish they would expand it because May is coming forward far too quick and there are far too many people who need to come forward,” Hlavka said. “And the thought of just one victim not coming forward and getting justice doesn’t sit well with me.”

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