For Those Sexually Abused Decades Ago, State Offers Little Legal Recourse

Last Wednesday, a 44-year-old Indiana man named Warren Tucker stood outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and announced he'd been sexually abused by an East Tennessee priest some 30 years ago.

"I have come forward now, after overcoming the shame, the embarrassment, and the fear that has controlled my life for way too long, to try to spare even one child the hell that has been and is still my life," Tucker read from a statement. Referring to the priest as "Father X," Tucker said the abuse began when he entered the 5th grade and took place from about 1975 to 1980.

Father X was soon revealed to be Father Bill Casey, who served in the Kingsport parish and in Farragut's St. John Neumann Catholic Church during the past few decades. After admitting to Bishop Richard Stika that Tucker's allegations had merit, Casey on Monday was taken into custody by Greene County, Tenn., police. He will be extradited to McDowell County, N.C., where Tucker alleges some abuse occurred and where Tucker filed a criminal complaint last fall. Unlike Tennessee, North Carolina has had and continues to have an unlimited statute of limitations regarding crimes of sexual abuse committed against a minor. If the alleged abuse against Tucker had occurred exclusively in Tennessee, he would have almost no legal recourse against his abuser.

That's all too often the norm, says Susan Vance, a former nun who is East Tennessee coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She says it's sad that "we're depending on North Carolina to do Tennessee's dirty work," and she wants to work with legislators to abolish statute of limitations laws here. Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, for one, says she has "supported removing the statute of limitations in the past and would do so again." Woodson worked with SNAP to pass legislation to amend statute of limitations law in 2006.

In fact, laws here have been changed every 10 years or so, each time lengthening the period statute of limitations would apply, says David Raybin, a Nashville attorney who's worked extensively on child sex abuse cases. He says the laws were first altered so that the statute of limitations wouldn't begin running until the victim turned 18; in 1997, they were again changed to allow the victim 15 years after he or she turned 21 to press charges; in 2006, through a bill pushed by Gov. Bredesen and passed unanimously in the House and Senate, they were changed once again to give the victim 25 years to prosecute after age 18, which remains the current law. That law also abolished the statute of limitations for "prosecution of aggravated rape, sexual battery, rape, sexual battery by an authority figure, and incest committed against a person under the age of 18."

But these changes have never applied retroactively because doing so would be considered an ex post facto law and create a constitutional conflict. Thus, Raybin says the only way Casey could be prosecuted in Tennessee for allegations going back that far would be if he committed a crime for which he could receive a life sentence according to the laws at the time, such as the most severe form of rape. Even then, considerations of Casey's right to a speedy trial would create problems for the prosecution, he says. "The problem that you have with statutes of limitations of that length is defending yourself," Raybin says. "How do you defend something that occurred a quarter of a century ago?" With regard to a possible civil case, the period to file a personal injury claim is one year after the alleged abuse.

Even without the possibility for prosecution in Tennessee, Tucker and SNAP are encouraging abuse victims to speak up. "The predators who call themselves men of God count on the silence of victims," Tucker said outside the Diocese. "If you are a victim, come forward and begin to heal." Vance says she has allegations implicating 11 priests who served in East Tennessee, only five of whom have been revealed, and she hopes more will come forward. Stika has said he would meet privately with anyone who has allegations regarding potential abuse.

Mike Coode, 70, is the Nashville coordinator of SNAP and was a victim of sex abuse, too. He did not come forward until he was 55, and one of the priests who molested him has never been charged. But, he says, coming forward still has benefits for the victim. "You cannot believe the emancipation that it gives to declare that it happened to you. It forever changes you," Coode says, fighting tears. "It's just such a great relief feeling to be believed by somebody, because this is such an unbelievable thing."