Hawaii came close to not only following other states but surpassing them in allowing victims of child sexual abuse to sue their long-ago offenders. Though wholly well-intentioned, the legislation went too far in allowing a window for filing such lawsuits and Gov. Neil Abercrombie had little choice but to veto the proposal.
Next year’s Legislature should consider a more workable measure.
California was first in 2002 to give past alleged child sex-abuse survivors one year and one time to file claims if the statute of limitations for such claims had expired. The temporary law resulted in claims by 850 victims of long-previous abuse that cost the Roman Catholic Church from $800 million to $1 billion in damages and settlements.
Delaware gave alleged victims of child sexual abuse in 2007 two years to sue their accused molesters, prompting 175 lawsuits. In February, Delaware’s Supreme Court upheld the temporary law, rejecting the argument that a defendant should have a "right" to know that no one can bring such a claim because the statute of limitations had expired.
In Hawaii, the intention to allow similar redress for such a heinous crime years ago is to be commended. But the recent bill overreached in trying to make a public employer, such as the state, liable for the criminal acts of a worker.
Hawaii Attorney General David M. Louie urged legislators to avoid lawsuits "not just against the alleged perpetrator but against even those who the claimant may believe had some connection, no matter how peripheral, to the assault or abuse, without any time limitation."
He asked legislators to "avoid any confusion" by following the California law, but they went beyond that.
Proponents of such legislation have not hidden their purpose of seeking redress against the Catholic Church, but the Hawaii legislation would have allowed former child-abuse victims to make claims also against counties and the state.
Honolulu Corporation Counsel K.S. Okinaga pointed out in testimony that counties, like the state, are perceived as being worthwhile as lawsuit defendants because of their "deep pockets."
Under present state law, Abercrombie noted in his veto statement, the state is immune from lawsuits alleging "criminal or intentional acts of its employees." The bill would have allowed a victim to be compensated for "gross negligence" by a county, the state or private companies.
As in other states, the Hawaii Catholic Church was the most vocal opponent of the legislation, warning that lawsuits prompted by such a law could be aimed at schools, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, YWCA, Boys’ and Girls’ clubs, childcare programs, etc., plus "a flood of claims against both government bodies and private institutions."
No entity has gained more infamy for sexual abuses of children shrouded in secrecy than the Catholic Church, which should not be protected by the current statutes of limitation. Hawaii lawmakers should follow the successes in California and Delaware in recrafting legislation to be signed into law next year by Abercrombie so child-abuse survivors may have their day in court.