HARRISBURG – A scathing grand jury report documenting child sex abuse by more than 300 Roman Catholic priests impacting more than 1,000 children has reignited calls for changing Pennsylvania law to give victims more time to seek justice.

Only two priests identified in the grand jury report have been criminally charged due to the investigation.

The vast majority of the victims affected by the crimes documented in the 800-plus page report stand to get no further sense of justice than having their abusers revealed to the public.

Editorial | Statute of limitations on child sexual abuse must be eliminated

In most cases, the predator priests and the church leaders who covered up for them won’t face criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits because the state’s statute of limitations has run out.

Church leaders continue to oppose efforts to get state law changed to make it easier for victims of old child sex crimes to seek justice.

“The time to discuss legislation will come later,” Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said in a Friday e-mail.

Hill said church leaders are “devastated and outraged” by the revelations in the grand jury report.

Statute of limitations for child abuse in neighboring states

“Our focus now is on improving ways that survivors and their families can recover as they continue through a difficult healing process,” Hill said.

That’s not good enough, said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania  professor and founder of Child USA, a group advocating to better protect children.

“Public shaming doesn’t work with Catholic bishops,” she said.

There is increasing public support for such changes, said Chelsea Byers of the Campaign to Abolish the Statute of Limitations. An online petition calling on Pennsylvania lawmakers to get rid of the statute of limitation in cases of sex abuse has almost 100,000 signatures.

Byers said the petition was created in response to the Bill Cosby sex crimes revelations. 

The allegations in the grand jury report show just how pervasive sexual abuse has been and how state laws have create “silencing mechanisms” to deter victims from coming forward because there’s little opportunity for any real sense of justice for many of them, she said.

Under Pennsylvania law, victims have until the age of 50 to seek criminal prosecution for child sex crimes. They have until the age of 30 to sue in civil court.

Advocates such as Hamilton say that these age limits are insufficient because the nature of child sex abuse often deters victims from coming forward in time to satisfy the current legal timelines.

Only 25 percent to 33 percent of victims disclose their abuse while still children. Some never do. Between 33 percent to 50 percent come forward while adults, at the average age of 52, research by Hamilton’s group found.

The grand jury recommended eliminating the statute of limitations entirely and called for the creation of a window of time to allow victims of old child sex crimes to sue even if the statute of limitations in their cases has already expired.

These types of civil lawsuit windows have been put in place in six states – California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Minnesota and Michigan, according to an analysis by Child USA. Unlike the other states that offered relief to any victims of childhood sex abuse, the Michigan window was  limited to a 90-day period for victims of disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar.

In Delaware, the state offered victims two years to file civil lawsuits from old sex abuse claims, from 2007 to 2009. More than 1,000 people took advantage of the opportunity. Most of them were victims of pediatrician Earl Bradley, a serial child molester who abused young patients in his office, according to Child USA.

Massachusetts adopted a slightly different approach. In 2014, that state extended the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in child sex abuse cases to the age of 53. In doing so, Massachusetts made the change retroactive to include victims whose cases had already timed out under the previous statute of limitations.

Pennsylvania Senate Bill 261, a measure that passed the state Senate in June would have provided victims more time to sue, moving the age ceiling for civil lawsuits from 30 to 50, the same age limit used for criminal prosecution of child sex crimes. It would also eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution in cases in which there was a conspiracy facilitating the sexual abuse of a child.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed announced Wednesday that lawmakers in that chamber will consider whether to adopt or change the Senate bill during the fall legislative session.

Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, said that Senate Republicans believe that the Senate Bill 261 changes represent what the state can do without violating the Constitution. While it doesn’t include the window for civil lawsuits, in other ways it goes further than the recommendations from the grand jury, she said. 

That includes language that would make it easier for victims to sue public schools, local governments and state agencies if they are involved in covering up child abuse, Kocher said.

Those changes wouldn’t help the more than 1,000 victims in the latest grand jury report, Hamilton said.

“Opening a civil window becomes the only pathway for justice” for victims, she said.

Byers said that opening a civil window of some kind probably makes sense.

“It would speak to state’s failure and the need to make it right,” Byers said.

Hamilton said she believes the legislature could legally provide that window of opportunity.

The hurdle is that lawmakers must decide to embrace the change despite opposition from the Catholic Church hierarchy and the insurance industry, she said.

“The only thing standing in the way is politics,” Hamilton said.

Michael Dolce, a Florida attorney who led efforts to reform that state’s statute of limitations law in 2010, said the problem sounds familiar.

Dolce said the Florida changes came after a grassroots campaign by abuse survivors. Their campaign spurred sufficient media coverage to generate the pressure to get lawmakers to act, despite insurance industry lobbying and opposition from the Catholic Church, he said.

“We won because we were right,” Dolce said.

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

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