Faithful Practice
March 2011

For Francis Maier, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, the 2006 session of the Colorado General Assembly was a teeth-grinding time. Literally.

That January, lawmakers introduced a bill to create a two-year window that would retroactively suspend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse litigation. The measure had one principal target: the Catholic Church.

Catholic leaders statewide opposed what they regarded as “look-back” legislation. Early on, at a meeting to discuss strategies to oppose the bill, a handful of top church officials listened to five options laid out by L. Martin Nussbaum, a partner with Denver based Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons (effective September 1, 2013, Lewis and Roca LLP). Maier had little confidence that any of the first four would sway legislators or public opinion. Then Nussbaum, representing the Colorado Catholic Conference, suggested the fifth option: placing the problem of child sexual abuse in a broader context.

Credible research, he explained, suggested the incidence of abuse in public institutions nationwide—notably schools and juvenile detention facilities—dwarfed the rate within the Catholic Church. A 2004 study issued by the U.S. Department of Education estimated that almost 300,000 students a year, from 1991 to 2000, had endured some form of sexual abuse by a public school employee. By comparison, from 1950 to 2002, there were a total of 10,667 incidents of abuse in the Catholic Church. The disparity led the author of the report, Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft, to assert that “the physical, sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.” Another 2004 study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, showed that the average number of allegations against Catholic clergy had dropped from more than 500 a year between 1968 and 1980 to fewer than 50 by the mid-1990s.

The Colorado bill was characterized by Democratic lawmakers as an attempt to redress victims of Catholic clergy abuse. Some of the victims testified on the proposal, which had its roots in similar legislation passed in California in 2002. That measure—drafted with the help of Jeffrey Anderson, a prominent plaintiff ’s lawyer based in St. Paul, Minn., who has filed hundreds of child-sex abuse suits against the church—suspended the statute of limitations for a year and targeted public and private entities alike.