Nebraska Legislative Proposal Could Allow Legal Action Against Abusive Priests, Churches

Nov. 30, 2021, 6:30 a.m. ·

People Walk Into a Catholic Church
Parishioners enter St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Omaha. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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His bill has yet to be written, but State Sen. Rich Pahls knows why he wants to change the statutes of limitation for sexual assault of child. He said he just needed to read the full report from Nebraska's Attorney General.

“I mean, you just cringe," Pahls said. "The number of people who they knew that we're doing wrong, and they allowed it; they allowed it.”

When Attorney General Doug Peterson released a report on 258 cases of sexual abuse in Nebraska Catholic Churches earlier this month, Peterson said the state would not bring any criminal charges. He too was doubtful that any civil lawsuits would come of the report. The reason lies in statutes of limitation. In order to bring charges, those statutes would need to change, and Pahls wants to do just that.

Rich Pahls headshot
State Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Unicameral Information Office)

Statutes of limitation are laws that determine how long after an offense legal action may be taken. An overhaul of the statutes won’t be easy, but Pahls, who's a retired school administrator and former Omaha city councilman, said it’s important.

“We must discuss this on the floor to make sure everybody understands because we have to look towards the future," he said. "Even though the Church has made changes, history has a tendency of repeating itself.”

If Pahls and supporters are successful, the state could prosecute some of the priests whose alleged crimes occurred decades ago, and it would allow some of the victims to sue the church or other third parties. In other states, Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy after numerous civil lawsuits.

The details could change by the time the bill is introduced early next year, but, as of now, Pahls wants to make two specific changes:

  • First, he would like to drop all limitations for child sexual assault on civil suits. Currently, victims have until they are 33 years old to file a case against a church or other third parties. Pahls said that would also include a school district like the ones he used to work for.
  • Second, Pahls would like to introduce a 2-year "look-back window" where the state could open a criminal case against an abuser, whenever the abuse took place. Currently, only cases after 1997 are fair game, according to the Attorney General's report.

“First and foremost, the Church wants to recognize its past failures – its past sins," said Tom Venzor, the executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference. "And most especially (the Church) wants to deeply apologize to any victims who have suffered at the hands of church officials.”

Without the specific language of a bill in front of him, Venzor didn’t want to comment on specifics, but he says the Church can contribute to the conversation.

"I think we can bring insights and experience to the table in terms of how do you approach these issues so that you're also respectful of victims, and you don't incidentally, or accidentally, retraumatize those who have actually experienced sexual abuse, trauma and that kind of thing," Venzor said.

Plenty of other states including California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii have changed their civil statutes to allow more time for civil suits. In Minnesota, for example, the Minneapolis archdiocese declared bankruptcy after the laws changed and lawsuits were settled.

Other states like Vermont have removed civil limitations completely – just like Pahls wants to do. For organizations like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, the Vermont law is the gold standard.

“The sad reality is that by the time that most survivors do come forward, which in the U.S. is 52-years old, the courtroom doors are closed to them – both criminally and civilly," said Zach Hiner, the executive director of SNAP. The average age of 52 when people come forward is the main reason why Hiner thinks the civil limitations should be nixed in Nebraska.

On the criminal side of Pahls’ proposal, the outlook is murky. A 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Stogner v. California, declared a similar California proposal unconstitutional. Pahls said he’s aware of constitutional concerns and is willing to challenge the precedent because the makeup of the court has changed since then. He’s said he's reached out to the Attorney General’s office to see if they’ll be interested in supporting it, too.

Jack Hosking stands in his dinning room
Jack Hosking of Omaha stands in his dinning room. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

One person with a strong interest in changes is Jack Hosking of Omaha.

“Many statute of limitations bills, even the so-called improved ones, still tended to protect the perpetrator," said Hosking. "But not the institution that the perpetrator, the pedophile, represented.”

Hosking’s son was abused by a priest in the late '70s, and that led him to where he is today: working to change them. For him, the changes to civil statutes are about holding the institutions accountable.

“A lot of justice for victims, but also the biggest benefit for society is that it avoids the hiding," Hosking said. "Transparency becomes more important.”

Pahls is expecting some pushback on his proposals. As a Catholic himself, he said it’s a tough but necessary approach that’s not about harming the Church.

“Perhaps they will be embarrassed," he said. "But, you know, we're here to make the world a little better, I think.”

The Judiciary Committee will hear the proposal when the Nebraska Legislature convenes in early January.