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SEX ABUSE VICTIMS PRESS THEIR CASE FOR REDRESS

It took William G. Iannaccone 14 years before he could utter a word about a Protestant minister he says sexually abused him as a teenager.

The Cheektowaga resident finally opened up in 1982 with written complaints to various authorities, but the time frame to pursue legal remedies was long past and the complaints went nowhere. Iannaccone is not giving up on the issue, however.

In Albany last week, he and several dozen victims of clergy abuse, along with lawyers and mental health professionals, lobbied state legislators to change the laws that restrict legal action in cases involving sexual abuse.

The current law allows for civil suits to be brought up to eight years after the victim's 18th birthday. Criminal charges can be filed against a perpetrator of sexual abuse within three years. Across the country, changing these statutes of limitations is a top priority among victims of clergy abuse, who want the chance to prove their cases in court and hold their abusers, as well as the church, accountable.

A bill sponsored by State Sen. Thomas K. Duane, D-Manhattan, would create that opportunity in New York. The legislation would open a three-year window during which victims of childhood sexual assault who were previously barred from bringing a lawsuit because of the statute of limitations could sue.

The legislation would expire after three years. A similar bill became law in California, opening a one-year window for victims of abuse to file lawsuits there.

The statute of limitations is a long-held tenet of the American legal system, and so far, suspending it in cases of sexual abuse appears to have little support among New York legislators and others.

"Memory fades. People die. Evidence is destroyed," said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference. "We would be concerned about any changes to the statute of limitations. There's a reason why we have a statute of limitations in both criminal and civil law. The key thing is the issue of justice and fairness."

For example, he said, how could a diocese defend against a claim from 50 years ago, if the bishop from that time is dead and the accused priest is infirm?

"It's one thing to talk about (changing the) statute of limitations going forward. It's another thing to talk about the suspension of them," said Poust.

School districts, nonprofits and churches would be subject to lawsuits that potentially could bankrupt them, he added.

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, who controls legislation in the Senate, has said he would not allow a vote on Duane's bill.

Instead, Bruno supports a Senate bill passed in March that makes all members of the clergy mandated child abuse reporters and requires that clergy review institutional records regarding allegations of child abuse.

A similar bill passed the Assembly in March, as well.

Victims and their advocates say those measures don't go far enough. Last week, they were in Albany pushing for the Duane bill in a collective lobbying effort.

They also favor another Duane bill, which would expand the statute of limitations to include a "delayed discovery" provision, allowing victims to sue up to three years after they learn of psychological injury or illness due to the alleged abuse. Several other states also are considering measures that would extend the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases.

Like many victims of abuse, Iannaccone says it was impossible for him to have come forward with his allegations any sooner.

"When you're a young man, you don't want to tell anybody you had a homosexual incident. It's just not something you want to do," he said. "At 30 years old, you've reached a point in your life when you know yourself, you know your identity. You become secure in your identity."

Iannaccone says he never bothered to bring a lawsuit because he knew a judge wouldn't allow it to go forward under the current statutes.

Many of the victims stepping forward now claim abuse from 20, 30 or even 40 years ago, and judges routinely have dismissed their lawsuits.

Earlier this month, a State Supreme Court justice dismissed a case against the Catholic Diocese of Rochester, involving claims by 10 men that a diocesan priest had abused them between 1977 and 1986, when they were boys.

Mark Furnish, one of the plaintiffs in the Rochester case, said the time restrictions allow the Catholic Church the opportunity to cover up abuse and keep priests working. Dioceses don't have to make their records available during legal discovery, if they invoke a statute of limitations defense, he said.

"It's time for society in general to realize that there's this gestation period between the time the abuse happens and the time you're ready to come to terms with it," said Furnish, who also works as Duane's staff attorney.

Researchers estimate that 16 percent of people who have been sexually abused report the abuse, according to Edith Mann, a certified social worker who has counseled many victims.

Only about 12 percent of those reporting abuse come forward within 24 hours.

In some cases, the abuse is so traumatic it gets buried deep within a victim's psyche as a repressed memory.

"It's a psychological protective mechanism," said Mann.

Colleen McMullin Ptak, who settled a lawsuit with the Diocese of Buffalo in 1996, said it took nearly two decades for her to remember that she had been sexually abused by a Buffalo priest as a high school student during the 1970s.

"I blocked it out," said Ptak, a Buffalo native who now lives in Flint, Mich. "To this day, I don't know why it came out when it did."

The recovered memory sent Ptak into a "total breakdown" and nearly destroyed her family, she said.

"My kids did not have a mother who functioned for probably two or three years. My husband used to come home from work and find me in the closet," she said. "Sometimes I wish that I didn't remember."

Ptak wanted to take the lawsuit further, but accepted a $125,000 settlement, to pay counseling costs, when it became apparent that the statute of limitations was a problem, she said. "I really wanted my day in court. I wanted to be able to face him and say, 'This is what you did,' " she said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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