THE NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: AG office, Legislature take action to aid victims of sexual abuse

Accusations of sexual misconduct by American clergymen in the Catholic Church as well as the Southern Baptist Convention ignited outrage across the country last year that the victimization of vulnerable children and adults has too often been concealed or mishandled.

The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend posted a list of 17 credibly accused priests in its jurisdiction through the years, of which 14 had at some time served in Fort Wayne. A Houston Chronicle-San Antonio Express News investigation of the SBC resulted in a database list of 220 known abusers convicted or forced to register as sex offenders, which included six from Indiana, but none from Allen County.

Many accusations of sexual abuse had not been reported or resolved for years. wrote in response to the news reports that it is long past time that leaders in all churches make the laws of God and man and the safety and protection of children their preeminent concerns in dealing with future reports of sexual abuse.

We applaud Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill’s office for taking action to help in such a response by introducing a new initiative last week to help victims of sexual abuse — an online form to report abuse by clergy. Hill says any forms submitted may be disclosed to law enforcement agencies in accordance with Indiana law.

The Office of the Attorney General’s online form on the website is designed to make it easier for victims and others to report suspected sexual abuse. The form asks questions such as when and where the alleged abuse happened.

“Members of the clergy hold positions of great responsibility,” Hill said in a news release. “People trust them and look to them for guidance. By providing this service, we help ensure that if ever a religious leader betrays that trust by committing an illegal act of abuse, he or she is more likely to be found out and investigated. Those who violate our laws must be held fully accountable for their actions.”

The Indiana Legislature is also taking action to aid possible victims by considering Senate Bill 219, which would “end the statute of limitations for civil suits against a person or entity whose negligent or intentional act or omission led to the sexual abuse of a child.”

The Indiana statute of limitations for civil action after sexual abuse against a minor is “seven years after the cause of action or four years after the child ceases to be a dependent of the person alleged to have performed the sexual abuse.”

The bill introduced by Indiana Sen. James Merritt (R-Indianapolis), now before the House Judiciary Committee, effectively would do away with the statute of limitations for civil action after childhood sexual abuse. It would provide a means of recourse for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The bill should also, Merritt says, put agencies “on notice” that they should do more to protect children under their care.

It is good that our government officials are not sitting on their hands in regard to the epidemic problem of the sexual abuse of children, especially within the institutional purview of churches.

But it is critically important that churches and their governing bodies take the lead in policing their own, and responding quickly, transparently and forcefully to accusations by possible victims and not covering up these crimes. They must be committed to seeing justice done for the benefit of victims.