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Stories of child sexual abuse made headlines in 2011, but few of the victims in those cases were able to sue their abusers. That's because the alleged crimes happened so long ago. Now, lawmakers around the country are pushing to extend or waive the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse charges.
As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the idea also has opponents - including the Catholic Church, which argues the move could unleash a torrent of lawsuits.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It took almost 30 years, but Richard Fitter is going public with the allegation that he was sexually abused by Reverend John Capparelli. Fitter says the former New Jersey priest groped him repeatedly during the early 1980s.
RICHARD FITTER: I thought I'd done the right thing and come forward 20 years ago and reported him. And it turns out that, you know, he was never held accountable for what he did.
ROSE: Fitter says he first reported Capparelli to another priest in 1992. Capparelli, who denies the allegations against him, was removed from the ministry, and Fitter thought he was no longer working with children. But Capparelli did continue to teach in the Newark public schools until two reports, detailing a long list of allegations against him, appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger last year. When Fitter read those stories, he decided it was time to come forward again.
FITTER: I was satisfied with the fact that he wouldn't be around kids anymore; he wouldn't be a danger. 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.
ROSE: This time, Fitter filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages against Capparelli. But Fitter knows his lawsuit doesn't have much chance of success. So does his lawyer, Greg Gianforcaro.
GREG GIANFORCARO: Almost no chance.
ROSE: That's because the window to file a civil lawsuit in child sexual abuse cases in New Jersey 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 at all, let alone file a lawsuit. And in the wake of high-profile stories about Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin, Gianforcaro is urging New Jersey lawmakers to reconsider the statute of limitations.
GIANFORCARO: If we're ever going to find out who these abusers are, who the Sanduskies are, it's through giving men and women who were abused in the past a voice. And the only way they'll get that voice is if there's change in the legislation.
ROSE: Lawmakers in New Jersey are considering a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations to bring child sexual abuse cases, but that bill also has some powerful opponents.
PAT BRANNIGAN: The reality is that this proposal simply fosters lawsuits.
ROSE: Pat Brannigan directs the New Jersey Catholic Conference. He testified against the bill at a hearing in Trenton, in late 2010.
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 bill's opponents point to what happened in California. The state approved a temporary, one-year window when the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits did not apply. More than 800 claims of clergy abuse were filed against the Catholic Church. Delaware followed California's approach, resulting in about a hundred lawsuits.
Lawmakers in New York and Pennsylvania are pushing similar bills that have stalled there in the past. Pennsylvania State Representative Michael McGeehan is sponsoring a bill that would temporarily waive the statute of limitations for sex abuse charges.
STATE REP. MICHAEL MCGEEHAN: I don't think you can put a timeline on it. 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.
ROSE: McGeehan says opponents of his bill have been a lot quieter since the Penn State scandal broke. But his bill, and its counterpart in New Jersey, remain very much stuck in committee.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.