Lawmakers: State must open courtrooms to priest-abuse survivors

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Two Grand Rapids state lawmakers said the timing could be right this year for legislation that would open courtroom doors for survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and others.

The so-called “window” legislation, which would temporarily eliminate the statute of limitations, could have a huge impact on the Catholic Church in the state.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating abuse by priests and cover-ups by the church, said there could be as many as 1,000 priest-abuse victims in the state.

“There’s no question there’s a price to pay here and there will be folks who come and argue with us it’s too high a price, and I think the argument of the victims is stronger than that,” Sen. Winnie Brinks said in response to a Target 8 investigation.

Brinks and State Rep. David LaGrand, both Democrats, said they were disappointed last year when window legislation failed in Michigan.

Other states, like New York, Minnesota and California, have opened windows for survivors of sexual abuse no matter how long ago — temporarily eliminating the statute of limitations.

In some cases, it led to multi-million dollar settlements between the Catholic church and hundreds of survivors, some of them abused decades earlier.

It also has led some dioceses to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“I think we’ve seen in other states that they’ve been able to do it and it’s worked well,” Brinks said.

A bill passed by the Michigan Senate last year would have opened a short window for survivors.

But the Catholic church and others lobbied against it, arguing it would be difficult to defend against decades-old allegations.

The final bill passed by the House and signed into law kept the window shut on survivors with one exception, the victims of Michigan State University Dr. Larry Nassar.

“What you saw pass last year was the best we could get out of that Legislature that we had elected then,” Brinks said. “We’ve got new members now, and I think there may be more of a willingness to take a look at it.”

“I’m willing to start that conversation with my colleagues and see if we can make some progress,” she added.

That would mean a lot to survivors like the Barry County man who said he was molested by Father David LeBlanc at Holy Family Church in Caledonia in 1999, when he was 12.

“To me, learning that there wasn’t anything criminally or civilly I could do was like, now what?” he said.

LeBlanc was among 14 priests who molested at 33 kids in the Grand Rapids diocese over the decades, according to a Target 8 investigation.

Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney who was featured in the movie Spotlight after helping expose abuse and cover-ups in the Boston Catholic church, said Michigan needs to give survivors a chance at justice.

“That should be done in Michigan. It’s a no-brainer in so many ways, and why would anybody oppose that?” he said. “Because of their own economic self-interest. That’s why. Their interest is not because of the safety of children or protection of children primarily.”

LaGrand, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, says he plans to work with both sides.

“This is not a Catholic problem,” said LaGrand, an ordained Christian Reformed pastor. “This is a problem that exists in the faith community, just as much as it exists in the outside world.

“It’s an issue that does deeply concern me and it’s certainly possible that I’ll initiate legislation,” he said.

“This particular Legislature is really focused on real criminal justice reforms, so I absolutely think this is something that there are good people on both sides of the aisle who are going to look at this issue thoughtfully.”

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