KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Several states are trying to make it easier to prosecute or sue people who are accused of sexually abusing children. But Roman Catholic leaders are opposing some of these efforts, and in one case have spent a lot of money to do so. They say changes to state law could target them unfairly. A word here - this story does contain themes that might be unsuitable for some listeners. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It's important to say right up front that this isn't a story about pedophile priests. Bridie Farrell, a victim's rights activist, is Roman Catholic, but she says it was her coach, not a priest, who sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager.
BRIDIE FARRELL: It happened at his house, in his car, in his hotel room.
MANN: Farrell did what a lot of kids do when they're molested. She kept silent.
FARRELL: And it was 18 years later when I was 31 that I came forward and publicly told anyone this story.
MANN: The problem is that there's a ticking clock. In a lot of states, including New York, where Ferrel was assaulted, if you don't report a rape or file a civil lawsuit fast enough, the perpetrator, whether it's a coach or a relative or a priest, gets off scot-free.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRAD HOYLMAN: The bill before the House, Mr. President, addresses the issue of child victims of sexual assault.
MANN: Hoylman is a Democrat in New York state's Senate. He's part of a growing effort in state Houses across the country to make it possible to revive these old cases.
HOYLMAN: The statute of limitations for child sexual abuse are just too short. In a word, they're broken.
MANN: Hoylman pushed last spring to extend the deadline for reporting sexual assaults against kids. He also wanted to open a one-year window - a kind of grace period - so that victims who've waited too long can get a second chance to sue in civil court. New York's Catholic bishops hate this idea and spent more than $2 million lobbying to block the measure.
DENNIS POUST: We just think it's fundamentally unjust.
MANN: Dennis Poust is spokesman for the New York Catholic Conference. He says it's fine to extend the statute of limitations for future sex crimes, but he doesn't think old cases should be dragged back into court.
POUST: Evidence is lost, and memories fade, and witnesses are dead. There's just no good way to defend against such cases.
MANN: Laws making it easier to prosecute pedophiles and opening retroactive windows for civil lawsuits have passed in other states, including California, Hawaii and Minnesota. Poust says in those places, Catholic organizations faced hundreds of millions of dollars in new claims.
POUST: Plaintiff's attorneys have been teeing these cases up for many years and are more than willing to harm today's Catholics who had nothing to do with the abuse of the past.
MANN: New York isn't the only state where Catholic leaders are pushing back. Pennsylvania's legislature debated a similar measure this year, so the Archdiocese of Philadelphia distributed fliers during church services targeting Catholic lawmakers who support extending the statute of limitations. Republican Representative Nick Miccarelli says the church tried to shame him.
NCIK MICCARELLI: This came from the archdiocese, and the priests were kind of sent out to do the dirty work.
MANN: This debate feels raw, in part because these crimes, while often decades old, are still coming to light. Last March, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a new report describing rape and sexual violence against hundreds of children by more than 50 priests in one diocese, Altoona-Johnstown. Democrat Frank Burns represents that community in the state House.
FRANK BURNS: I'm a Catholic, but when that grand jury report came out, it devastated our community. And there are still people trying to silence the victims right now.
MANN: A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sent a letter to NPR saying there's nothing wrong with priests sharing information about how Catholic lawmakers vote. Their lobbying efforts have been effective. The bill expanding the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children died this summer in New York's legislature. A similar measure stalled in Pennsylvania's state Senate. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say Bridie Farrell was sexually assaulted by her speedskating coach. In fact, the perpetrator was an adult mentor for her team, not the coach.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.