Child abuse statutes rally

Shaun Dougherty of Johnstown holds a petition supporting House Bill 612 during a rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday, April 3, 2017. The bill would remove the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes and create a two-year window for retroactive civil claims.

Shaun Dougherty is prominently involved in bringing attention to child sexual abuse statutes of limitations in the two states where he splits his time living: Pennsylvania and New York.

And the Johnstown area resident sees similarities with how the issue is being handled in both locations.

Dougherty and others have been attempting to eliminate Pennsylvania’s criminal and civil statues for abuse going forward, while also creating a retroactive window for cases of past alleged abuse. He became involved in the issue after his own alleged sexual abuse – at the hands of a predator priest – was apparently mentioned, with his name redacted, in a 2016 grand jury report that claimed the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown carried out a decades-long cover-up.

He has also joined in the effort to change New York’s statutes.

Dougherty spent hours on Monday attempting to raise support for his cause by visiting New York legislators and conducting telephone interviews.

“Specifically, what we’re trying to do in New York – and hopefully that it is working here and will translate better to Pennsylvania – is that we are targeting individual senator’s districts that have not come out in support of the retroactive window and extension of the statute of limitations,” Dougherty said.

He was joined by Marci Hamilton, a leading national advocate for the prevention of child abuse, who discussed multiple subjects, including a widely rumored – but officially unconfirmed – grand jury investigation by Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General into alleged abuse within multiple dioceses.

“My feeling – at this point – is I really want to see how this works in New York. I think this is a pilot model that has a real chance,” Hamilton said. “Right now, in Pennsylvania, the momentum died down, unfortunately, but I think it’s partially because I think everybody is waiting to see what happens with the grand jury report.”

Hamilton is the founder of Child USA, a Pennsylvania-based organization that, according to its website, “identifies the laws and policies that harm our children and then conducts relevant evidence-based legal, medical and social science research.”

Child USA is, according to Hamilton, “now stepping forward to lead the way” for groups and individuals looking to eliminate the state’s statute of limitations – an issue the Legislature is expected to address again in 2018.

Daugherty is concerned that, in his opinion, if the commonwealth does not change its laws, while other states strengthen theirs, a risk exists of “pretty much turning Pennsylvania into a sanctuary state for pedophiles.”

Alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse in Pennsylvania can file civil claims until they turn 30 and criminal claims until age 50.

Opponents of retroactivity believe it would violate the Pennsylvania Constitution’s remedies clause that states “all courts shall be open; and every man for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law, and right and justice administered without sale, denial or delay.” It has been opposed by the Catholic Church and Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania.

Last week, the commonwealth’s law once again played a role in a case involving the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. 

Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Rev. Charles Bodziak, stating the statute of limitations had expired from the incidents of child sexual abuse that reportedly occurred in the 1970s.

The statutes prevented charges being brought against any priest as a result of the grand jury report. Also, in October, counts of conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children were dropped against the Rev. Anthony “Giles” A. Schinelli, minister provincial for the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception from 1986 until 1994, because the statute of limitations had been reached. Schinelli was accused of providing Brother Stephen Baker assignments in which he had access to children even though, as the state contends, the minister provincial knew the friar had been accused of abuse. 

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.