Thursday, February 05, 2009

Survivors Urge Passage of Sexual Abuse Bill

By Michael Frost
Southern Maryland Onine
February 5, 2009

ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 5, 2009) -- Survivors of childhood sexual abuse urged lawmakers Thursday to vote in favor of a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for confronting abusers in civil court.

The bill would give people who were sexually abused as minors the right to file civil action until the time they turn 50. Currently, they have until 25.

It would also provide a two-year window for victims who were barred from taking action under current law.

"Ideally, there ought not be a statute of limitations for a crime like this," said Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, and a sponsor of the bill.

The Maryland Catholic Conference expressed its opposition to the bill, saying that it unfairly targets private institutions and would accommodate delayed reporting of abuse. Representatives of the church cited programs already in place for protecting children and identifying potential abusers.

They also worried that the cost of lawsuits could hinder church-sponsored social and educational programs. Sexual abuse cases involving priests and others have led to lawsuits against Catholic dioceses around the country, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

In testimony that became very emotional, proponents argued that the extension would allow survivors to confront past abuse when they are mentally and emotionally prepared to do so. It would also allow those guilty of abuse to be identified, they said, which would help protect potential victims in the future.

"These people are not statistics. They are persons who were brutalized when they were defenseless young persons," said Kelley.

Al Chesley of Bowie, a former professional football player for the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears, was one of the survivors who came forward. He recounted his abuse by a police officer when he was 13.

He expressed hope that his testimony "can be used to help some young kids not go through what I went through."

"I'm not up here as a victim. I'm a survivor," he said.

Another survivor, Paul Livingston of San Diego, flew in especially for the hearing. He said he only became able to confront past abuse upon the birth of his daughter when he was 35, and that it is still difficult for him to talk about it.

"I go from 6 (feet) 7 (inches) to two inches tall when I tell my story," he said.

Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, began her testimony by addressing the crowd.

"I do want to certainly express to the community, to everybody in the room, how deeply, deeply sorrowful and regretful we are for the fact that we are here at all today and having any involvement in the issue of child sexual abuse," she said.

Opponents argued that extending the statute of limitations might delay reporting of abuse.

"This bill does nothing to prevent child sexual abuse. In fact, (it) could inhibit the identification of child sexual abusers by delaying the reporting of the crime," said Michael Gambrill, retired chief of police of Baltimore County, who testified against the bill.

But proponents argued that some survivors need more time to confront what happened to them.

"Most survivors don't know how the abuse affected their lives until they've lived their lives," said Vicki Polin of Baltimore, a psychotherapist and the executive director of the International Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault. Polin is also an incest survivor.

Livingston, who flew in for the hearing, said he won a civil case in California after that state enacted similar legislation.

Still, if given the choice, he said, "I'd rather have my life back."

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