Judy Jones and Shaun Dougherty

Judy Jones (left), Midwest associate director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Shaun Dougherty, a reported victim of child sexual abuse, participate in an event outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown headquarters in Hollidaysburg, Blair County, on Wednesday, March 1, 2017.

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania has conducted nine grand jury investigations into the handling of child sex abuse cases in the last 15 years.

Almost all of the probes, including the one investigating the actions of six Roman Catholic dioceses across the state that was released Aug. 14, concluded with a call for legislative action to end to the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse.

That's call first came in 2003,  when sex abuse crimes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were first examined by a grand jury, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Center for Children's Justice.

At the time of 2003 investigation, victims had to report abuse before they turned 20. In 2006, the state changed the law to give victims until the age of 50 to seek criminal prosecution in child sex abuse cases.

That remains the statute of limitations a decade later.

The latestt grand jury investigation found that 301 priests had committed sexual abuse of children in six Roman Catholic dioceses across the state over a 60-year period. The allegations included in the report led to the arrest of just two priests, because the majority of the crimes happened too long ago.

That revelation has reignited the debate over whether those statutes of limitation should be eliminated.

The statute of limitations is by no means the only potential legislative reform that’s been raised by grand jurors. Many other substantial changes have been made said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice. Her organization on Wednesday released a report examining the grand jury investigations of the last 15 years.

Those investigations have included: 

  • Five investigating  the Catholic Church
  • Two examining public school scandals – in Allegheny and Dauphin counties
  • One looking at a Bucks County private school’s handling of sex abuse allegations
  • The investigation into Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and the Second Mile charity in Centre County.

The initial grand jury reports focusing on the Archdiocese in Philadelphia, in particular, led to important legal changes, Palm said.

In addition to extending the statute of limitations to the age of 50, these also included clarifying when abuse must be reported, and broadened the crime of endangering the welfare of children to cover cases where a person uses his or her official capacity to stop a report from being made to police about child abuse.

“The 2006 changes in my mind are such a pivotal point,” she said.

Two of the loopholes came to light in those investigations, Palm said. For one, church leaders could claim that they didn’t need to report abuse unless they were told about it directly by the victim. In another, the child protection law at the time had a very limited definition of who could be considered a perpetrator of child abuse, she said.

Act 179 of 2006 clarified that mandated reporters should alert police about suspected abuse regardless of whether they hear directly from the victim and regardless who the alleged abuser is.

Palm said that in the wake of the more recent grand jury reports, church leaders have publicly noted that they’ve made policy changes to better protect children. Many of those changes were required by the revisions to state law inspired by the older grand jury reports, she said.

Statute of limitations controversy

While there has progress, the stalemate over whether to eliminate the statute of limitations has lingered.

Advocates have repeatedly tried and failed to get the General Assembly to pass statute of limitations reform, Palm said.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, has announced lawmakers will consider the issue in their fall session. The Senate has already passed legislation that would abolish the criminal statute of limitations without offering a window for people to file civil lawsuits over old abuse claims. Under the state’s civil statute of limitations, victims have until the age of 30 to sue.

Advocates fighting to change the law want to get the civil window opened and the criminal statute of limitations eliminated, Palm said.

In an interview earlier this month, Marci Hamilton, founder of Child USA, said the civil window is needed because nothing else offers any help for the victims whose crimes were investigated by these grand juries.

The civil window “is their only pathway to justice,” she said.

Palm said her group supports both reforms, she said. However, after at least four legislative sessions have ended without the statute of limitation eliminated, she’d rather see that reform enacted without the civil window than lose another opportunity to pass by with neither becoming law.

Palm said she thinks many victims won’t benefit from a civil window for lawsuits, anyway. Allowing victims to sue will only help if the abuser is wealthy or was protected by a wealthy institution, like the church.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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