Catholic Church, Insurance Companies Oppose Sex Abuse Proposal

Jan. 21, 2022, 7 p.m. ·

Senator Rich Pahls testifies Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Rich Pahls testifies Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A proposal to end time limits on when lawsuits can be brought against churches and other organizations for child sexual abuse drew pushback from the Catholic Church and business insurance companies, in a legislative hearing Friday.

Currently in Nebraska, a victim of sexual abuse has 12 years after their 21st birthday, or ‘til age 33, to file a lawsuit against a so-called third party, like a church, for sexual abuse they suffered. Sen. Rich Pahls wants to remove that statute of limitations. Pahls told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee because of the trauma involved, the average age at which people who were abused as children come forward is 52. Last year, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson announced following an investigation that at least 258 individuals had been abused dating back to the 1930s in Nebraska’s three Catholic dioceses. One who told her story Friday was Stacey Naiman:

“I was born and raised in O'’Neill Nebraska. I attended St. Mary’s Catholic grade school and high school. In 1999, when I was 15 years old, I was groomed and sexually abused by a Catholic priest, Father Mark Merkel. He was my religion teacher and he also taught me morality as well,” Naiman said.

Peterson’s report says the archdiocese included Merkel’s actions in its own list of substantiated allegations. The report calls it somewhat baffling why the county attorney did not file charges. Naiman said by the time the attorney general’s office reopened the case in 2018, it was too late for legal action. Naiman’s mother, Erin Zakrzewski, described the toll her daughter’s depression and suicide attempts after being abused had on her and her husband Paul, and their businesses.

“Had we not had a good marriage and working relationship, we would not have survived this ordeal. And to this day, I am not sure we have truly survived it. The financial toll, the doctor bills, prescriptions, counseling, the insurance company raising rates over the years ahead, loss of work time so I could care for Stacey, and of a social life for myself and my husband. It was all we could do to keep the businesses going. It was just survival mode for the years ahead,” Zakrzewski said.

Tom Venzor of the Nebraska Catholic Conference opposed abolishing the statute of limitations. Venzor said the church is sorry and asks forgiveness from survivors. But he said the bill unfairly singles out private organizations, while exempting schools and other government entities.

“A 2004 U.S. Department of Education study estimates that 10 percent of students experience sex abuse in the public school. And that study’s author notes that the abuse problem in schools is likely more than a hundred times the abuse problem by priests,” Venzor said.

Pahls said his bill is just a first step, and he could deal with abuse in public institutions later.

Coleen Nielsen, representing a group of property and casualty insurance companies, also opposed the bill. Nielsen said lawsuits brought many years after the fact can be difficult or impossible to defend:

“Legislatures impose statutes of limitations to ensure and promote efficiency in the court system and to preserve evidence and facts. Time can alter or memories fade, records can be destroyed, witnesses can be difficult to find. Others may have become incapacitated or pass away. In essence the limitations are designed to protect us against unfair litigation by requiring certain timeliness,” Nielsen said.

The committee has not yet acted on the bill.

Also Friday, lawmakers listened to Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican deliver his annual “State of the Judiciary” address. In it, he described the work of the courts’ Office of Public Guardian, which helps oversee the care of vulnerable people. Heavican referred to one case where the public guardian had to relentlessly pursue medical care for someone whose caregivers refused to enter their home because the person had COVID. But he said the office isn’t budgeted enough money to serve all the people who need help:

“The office of Public Guardian has a waiting list for vulnerable adults in need of its services. However, due to budget constraints, for the third year in a row it was able to accept fewer than 25 new appointments out of the hundreds of incapacitated individuals in need of guardian conservator services,” Heavican said.

How much money to devote to those services will likely be one of the questions confronting the Legislature as senators consider changes to the state budget.