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Rocky Mountain Rip-Off

Colorado’s legislature ignores public-sSchool problem, and targets the Church.
by Wayne Laugesen | Source:
DENVER — Childhood sexual abuse runs rampant in Colorado public schools, where administrators, unions and colleagues of abusers have turned a blind eye and allowed it to flourish.

So what’s the state Legislature doing? It’s working furiously, for the second time in three years, on a law that would help the aging victims of decades-old sexual abuse sue the Catholic Church — for cases involving defendants who’ve long since died.

“There’s no element of fairness in any of this,” said Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference. “We have an ongoing problem in the public schools, and the Legislature is after the Church.”

The Legislature is considering a separate bill that would address sexual abuse in public schools, but one critic said comparing it to the Church bill would be like comparing a bottle rocket to a thermonuclear missile. One seeks annihilation, and the other is merely for show.

“Today in Colorado, the worst problem by far is coming from the public schools,” Kraska said. “Since Jan. 1, 2006, 44 public school teachers have been charged with sexual contact with children. That number only reflects those who’ve been caught and turned in.”

Though Colorado is focusing mostly on the Church, legislatures in at least 14 other states are taking measures to curb sexual abuse in public schools. That’s mostly because a nationwide Associated Press investigation published in October found that during a four-year period 2,570 educators had their teaching credentials revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned for sexual misconduct.

Experts told the news service the problem is much larger than the numbers reflect, because of widespread underreporting. The series reported that public school administrators routinely transfer abusive teachers from one school district to the next, and in some states the law forbids school administrators from warning their colleagues in other states about known abusers.

The Associated Press article got very little play in America’s newspapers. The Register found only a handful of newspapers that carried the article — compared to the avalanche of coverage of the sex abuse scandals of 2002 that involved Catholic clergy.

One of the only papers to launch its own investigation of the problem was The Oregonian in Portland, on Feb. 17 and 18. The Catholic League summed up its findings this way:

• Instead of punishing child molesters, they’re simply moved from place to place in the school system without anyone getting a heads-up.
• It takes almost a year-and-a-half to investigate claims of abuse in the public schools.
• If the accused public school teacher is guilty of touching a minor or accessing porn on a computer, he can continue working, provided he sees a shrink.
• Public school molesters who admit to their crimes are given a second chance.
• Investigators are not commissioned from the outside, but are all staffed from inside the public school system.
• Deals are routinely cut for accused public school molesters in secret, protecting the identity of the molester from the community.
• The accused public school molesters not only walk, they can walk away with cash settlements, health insurance and letters of recommendation.

“So where’s the outcry?” asked the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue. “If this were the Catholic Church, there would be calls for resignations and punitive measures. It only goes to show that kids don’t matter — what matters is the identity of the alleged abuser.”

Some lawmakers are taking up the challenge the Associated Press story raised.

In Missouri, Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, has introduced a bill that would eliminate statutes of limitations for sexual misconduct in schools, allowing victims to bring charges no matter how old the allegations.

“We’ve got to be on a bully pulpit with our school districts,” Cunningham told the Associated Press.

In New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer wants to eliminate the lengthy school district hearings granted to teachers convicted of sex crimes, favoring instant suspension instead. Gov. John Baldacci of Maine wants legislation that would force school districts to share names of abusive teachers with other states. Currently, Maine schools are among those restricted by state law from sharing with other states the names of teachers known to sexually abuse kids.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist supports a national databank of abusive teachers, connected with a hotline for complaints and federal funds to help pay for it.

The Associated Press found that politicians in a variety of states are looking at ways to expand background checks. Legislators in eight states — California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia — are looking to close loopholes that enable known abusers to quietly pass from one school district to another.

The AP reported that in the teaching community, the practice of shipping abusive teachers from one school to another is commonly known as “passing the trash.”

But legal experts say some of the measures may be more for show than substance, and they worry that teachers union lobbyists — mostly organized under the umbrella of the National Education Association — will water them down. Unlike the Church, public schools are protected by sovereign immunity — severely limiting or eliminating financial liability.

In Colorado, the bill would eliminate sovereign immunity — but only for a short window of time and only if a school hired an abuser without doing a background check in a jurisdiction that requires background checks.

“The bill really doesn’t do much of anything,” said Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs lawyer who defended the Archdiocese of Boston against 500 claims of sexual abuse. “It’s designed to make it look like the problem is being addressed, and it was drafted only because the Archdiocese of Denver has pointed out how unfair it is to aid and abet lawsuits against the Church, involving defendants who are dead, while ignoring a rampant and ongoing problem in the schools.”

Nussbaum said a loophole that protects schools from liability if they performed background checks makes little sense, if the desire is to protect kids.

“Background checks would not have screened out a perpetrator in any of the 500 Boston claims, and they wouldn’t do so most of the time in schools,” Nussbaum said. “That’s because the perpetrators don’t generally come into the system with criminal records.”

While the Colorado bill would impose little burden on public schools, it would open a two-year opportunity for plaintiffs’ lawyers to file lawsuits involving allegations of sexual abuse that occurred at any time in history in private organizations. It states specifically that plaintiffs can sue “even though the perpetrator of the offense is deceased or incapacitated.”

In Colorado, 44 cases of alleged sexual abuse have arisen since 2005 — the year plaintiffs’ lawyers began working toward a law to undo statutes of limitations. Most of the cases involve two priests who are dead, and they date back several decades.

It’s crafted after a California law that did exactly the same thing, opening a one-year window for lawsuits rather than the two-year window proposed in Colorado.

“With the California law, lawyers dredged up 1,034 old claims, more than 1,000 of those involving the Catholic Church,” Nussbaum said. “The claims have resulted in more than $1 billion in settlements, bankrupting one diocese. Hundreds have yet to be resolved. Ten claims involved dead priests who are accused of abusing children in the 1930s — when Herbert Hoover was president.”

State Rep. Gwyn Green, D-Golden, the Catholic who proposed the Colorado bill, also proposed the public schools bill. Unlike the bill to facilitate suits against the Catholic Church, the school bill would do nothing to remove statutes of limitations. Therefore, victims of recent sexual abuse in public schools may have no civil redress if legal notice wasn’t given to a school within 180 days. Conversely, victims could sue the Church for alleged abuse that took place at any time in history, regardless of whether anyone was ever put on legal notice.

“They’re trying to establish unlimited liability so they can go after the deep coffers of the Catholic Church,” said Colorado State Rep. Douglas Bruce, R-Colorado Springs, a former California prosecutor of pedophiles. “It’s reasonable to give victims a few years after they’re adults, and have figured out what happened. But this idea that the victim was embarrassed for 60 years and now is coming forward, well, that’s preposterous. It’s a shakedown.”

Bruce said it’s not in the interest of future victims to eliminate statutes of limitations, because it eliminates any incentive for victims to out their perpetrators in a timely fashion.

Ted Thompson, executive director for the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children, called on Colorado lawmakers to unanimously pass the bill.

“The issue is black-and-white,” Thompson told the Rocky Mountain News. “When it comes to the sexual abuse of a child, a statute of limitation only limits the victims.”

When Green first supported the statute of limitations bill in 2006, it was amended to include public schools and other government entities at the insistence of the Colorado Catholic Conference and the Archdiocese of Denver. School districts and teachers’ unions fought the bill en masse, and the sponsors let it die.

“This year, Green is hoping the separate bill will resolve the fairness issue and prevent the inclusion of public schools in the bill she’s really interested in,” Nussbaum said. “I predict the separate bill, even as weak as it is, will never see the light of day.”

Green declined to return numerous phone calls.

Wayne Laugesen is based in Colorado.

Source: National Catholic Register - March 9-15, 2008 Issue

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