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LAW | winter 2002

New Battleground for Survivors of Priest Child Sex Abuse

Ms. Winter 2002

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Nancy Sloan was just this side of puberty when she made the acquaintance of Father Oliver 0'Grady. She met him at a Catholic camp. He fussed over her. Befriended her parents. Came to dinner. So when he invited her to spend a weekend with him at his home 45 minutes away, her parents were delighted. "By today's standards, people would say, 'That's weird,"' says Sloan. "Not at the time. He was a priest. He was to be trusted.... My mother would have never thought otherwise."

The consequences were dire. For four days, O'Grady molested Sloan. "The last memory I had with him is severe pain while he was trying to penetrate an 11-year-old," she says. When O'Grady suggested another sleepover, Sloan told her parents what had happened. Devastated, they contacted O'Gradys parish. His pastor, Cornelius DeGroot, confronted O'Grady, who admitted to the molestation. DeGroot also advised O'Grady to write a letter of apology to Sloan's parents, which he did, admitting to "touching Nancy in areas I shouldn't have" and going "a little too far." Sloan's parents wanted assurances that he would not hurt other children. After first being rebuffed, they finally got a meeting with Stockton, CA, diocesan officials. According to Sloan, her parents were assured that the officials would take care of the matter and advised not to go to the police.

Altar BoyYears went by. Sloan was drawn to the helping professions--today she's a nurse. At age 21, in 1986, she entered a rape-crisis training program. She finally began to understand the devastating legacy of her abuse. She also lived in dread that O'Grady would hurt other children. Working with a woman who had confronted her abuser, Sloan took action. She filed a report with child protective services. She set up a meeting with officials from the Stockton diocese, who, she reports, insisted hers was an isolated case and advised her to "watch her motives." She confronted O'Grady. Called the press. And went to the police to file charges. Unfortunately, it was too late. The statute of limitations had expired.

A new California law could provide a national model for removing legal time limits that too often prevent successful prosecution of child sex abuse cases. In January 2003, California suspends the statute of limitations for one year for survivors of child sexual abuse. Any victim, regardless of how much time has passed since the abuse took place, will be able to bring civil charges against a perpetrator and the institution that harbored him. In 2004, after that "window" has passed, the new law will give survivors three years from the time they recognize that they were abused--so-called delayed discovery of injury--to bring charges, again regardless of the survivor's age.

  • In October the Vatican objected to the removal of the statute of limitations in the US bishops' new Norms for handling priest sex abuse of minors, saying this contradicted canon law. No matter how the church resolves this internal issue, it has no bearing on American civil and criminal laws needed to punish offenders.
  • For more information about the statutes in your state and how to help change them, go to

Thousands of survivors of child sexual abuse share Sloan's plight. "In all the cases that I've handled," says attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented over 500 survivors of priest sex abuse, "we've never had the other side win on the defense that it didn't happen. It's always been on the fact that [charges were filed] too late."

All that will change in California in January 2003 when the new law-which Anderson helped draft and for which Sloan testified before the California legislature-takes effect. Anderson calls the law "a breakthrough ... a demonstration that there has been a monumental and seismic shift in public opinion, because this went through unanimously."

Two types of statutes of limitations are at issue: civil and criminal.

  • Civil cases are those brought for monetary damages. More than half of the states now recognize delayed discovery of injury in civil cases. In those states, the statute of limitations does not take effect until the victim has recognized the damage done. Many states, however, still have not recognized delayed discovery of injury; they require that charges be brought within a certain number of years of the age of maturity.

Therapists and survivors stress how important delayed discovery of injury is. "When we're abused as children... we don't even believe it's abuse. We think it's all our fault," says Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). She says SNAP's members usually come forward in their 30s, but also in their 40s and 50s. "By the time we begin to understand that we're suffering from the implications of the abuse, we're well into adulthood. By then, the statute of limitations has run out and the perp has moved on to a whole new generation of victims ... We're not able to bring any changes against him, and he gets away with the crime."

SNAP is leading campaigns all over the country to extend statutes of limitations. Among the states they are targeting, says Blaine, are Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Another is New Jersey, where a bill has been introduced to eliminate the civil statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases, which finally could advance the cases being brought against a veritable ring of priests in the Camden diocese. Unlike California's Catholic Conference, which took no position on a new statute of limitations, the New Jersey Catholic Conference is vigorously opposing its elimination.

  • Criminal statutes of limitations are the ones that impede putting child sex offenders in jail. To many survivors, these are the more important laws. Here, too, there has been some progress. In a handful of states, there are no statutes of limitations on filing criminal charges for child sexual abuse cases under certain conditions. Many other states have extended the time for filing--e.g., within a designated number of years from the age of maturity. Still, even with those changes, many states give victims only until their early 20s to take action, leaving the abuser free to go on abusing.

Sloan found that out the hard way. In the early nineties, her father drove to her apartment to tell her the terrible news: O'Grady had been arrested for sexually abusing two boys. That turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Having been moved from diocese to diocese by three bishops-the last one Cardinal Roger Mahoney, now head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest--he went on to abuse some 20 children. One boy attempted suicide. O'Gradys last victim was a baby girl; her abuse was confirmed by a physical exam that revealed vaginal scarring consistent with digital penetration, according to California attorney Larry Drivon.

O'Grady was convicted of abusing the two boys, went to jail for seven years, and was then sent to Ireland. Anderson and Drivon won a multi-million dollar civil suit, on behalf of the same two boys, against O'Grady and the diocese of Stockton, with the help of Sloan's testimony. But she is still angry. She is also ambivalent about bringing civil charges against the Stockton diocese. "I would trade any cent I could get from these laws if I could get any of those individuals in jail who knew about it and let [O'Grady] have the opportunity to abuse somebody else."

That's a challenge district attorneys all over the U.S. are rising to meet. Jeanine Pirro, the DA in Westchester, NY, is one of them. Her grand jury earlier this year recommended to the New York State legislature eliminating the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases (as is done for murder and in some civil cases); mandatory reporting of child sex abuse by religious institutions (extremely important because the proposed revised Norms require Church officials to report these crimes only when compelled by law); the prohibition of confidentiality agreements in civil settlements, which have prevented victims from reporting crimes to the police; and criminal penalties for anyone "recklessly allowing" an employee with a record of child sexual abuse access to minors.

"The way the law is set up now. we are protecting the pedophiles," Pirro says. "Weve got to break those barriers to prosecute the real criminals."