HARTFORD —Criticizing what they called falsehoods and misinformation, lawyers representing more than 60 sexual abuse victims fired back Thursday at a letter from the state's Roman Catholic bishops opposing a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for civil cases involving child sexual abuse.
"The difficulty with this whole situation is there's an attempt to scare the parishioners in the state of Connecticut into believing that any kind of extension of the statute of limitations is going to bankrupt the church," said Hartford attorney Richard Kenny, whose firm represents many of the 143 people suing St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in a case involving sexual abuse. "That is flat-out false."
The bill pending in the state legislature would extend the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, exploitation and assault. Currently, victims have until they turn 48 to file lawsuits. The original proposal would have eliminated the age limit, but after opponents raised concerns, lawmakers added restrictions, allowing people 48 and older to sue only in certain circumstances — if someone under 48 has sued the same defendant and if he or she has documentary or physical evidence to support the claim.
Representatives of the Catholic Church have staunchly opposed the bill, and in a letter placed in parish bulletins last weekend and published as an advertisement in Thursday's Courant, the state's three Catholic bishops warned that it could lead to bankruptcy, threaten the assets of parishes even without a history of abuse, and "undermine the mission of the Catholic Church in Connecticut."
The bill could lead to hard-to-defend lawsuits that are decades old, the bishops wrote, and could delay the reporting of abuse.
They wrote that the bill targets St. Francis, the Catholic Church, and other churches and charities, and urged readers to contact their legislators. "We must stop this bill now," the letter says.
The bishops also asked pastors to read a statement against the bill from the pulpit.
Kenny said parts of the letter were incorrect, including a suggestion that the bill would make Connecticut the only state without a statute of limitations. Delaware, Alaska and Maine have no civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse.
Timothy O'Keefe, Kenny's law partner, said the bill applies to all institutions and individuals, not just the church. It also limits what lawsuits would be permitted, he said.
"They make it sound as though this is going to be open season on the Catholic Church, when nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
In the St. Francis case, Kenny said, the hospital had insurance, potentially blunting the financial effects of the lawsuits.
The case against St. Francis stems from Dr. George Reardon, who worked at the hospital from 1963 to 1993 and is believed to have abused as many as 500 children. He died in 1998, but in 2007, the owner of his former West Hartford home found more than 50,000 slides and 100 movie reels of child pornography hidden in a wall. Since then, 143 people have sued the hospital, alleging negligence for failing to stop the abuse. Of those, 56 are beyond the statute of limitations.
The hospital has said that it did not know of the specific allegations against Reardon until 1993, when state health officials moved to revoke Reardon's license.
In their letter, the bishops wrote that many lawsuits the bill would allow would be driven by trial lawyers hoping to profit. Kenny took offense to that, and invited Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell to go with him to the West Hartford Police Department to view the slides and movies Reardon took of the victims.
"These are the people that he does not talk about when he and the other bishops write their letters to the parishioners," Kenny said. "These are the people whose voices we are trying to let the church and the citizens of Connecticut hear."
Michael C. Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference, did not return a call for comment.