In Pennsylvania, the State House has passed a bill that would reform the statute of limitations regarding child sexual abuse cases. The bill would abolish the criminal statute of limitations for future criminal prosecutions for serious child sexual abuse crimes and other crimes relating to sexual assault. The bill has moved to the senate for consideration and it is widely believed the governor will sign it if it reaches his desk.
This bill is being widely applauded by victims and victim’s advocates across the country who have lobbied to abolish statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases nationwide. Concurrently, in New York, state Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would also eliminate the time limits for child sex abuse victims to bring criminal or civil cases.
As expected the Catholic Church has been outspoken in its opposition to statute of limitations reform in sex abuse cases. Current statutes of limitations have allowed the church to avoid prosecution in many, if not most, of the sex abuse cases brought against them. In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has strongly opposed abolishing the civil statute of limitations or opening a temporary window to allow accusers to file claims. This same position has been widely adopted by Catholic Dioceses across the nation.
In 2012 a panel of insurance experts presented a white paper to the Vatican estimating that there are as many as 100,000 children in the US who have been victims of clerical sex abuse. Many of these cases go back decades and it was usually standard practice for the church to cover up the crimes and shelter known pedophiles. They counted on statutes of limitations to make it nearly impossible for adults who were abused as children to put their claims before a court
The church is no doubt aware of the unique circumstances that exist in cases involving clergy sexually abusing children. In almost every case children are reluctant or unable to talk about pedophile priests or face their accusers. There are significant and unique barriers that prevent children from reporting what they intuitively know is inappropriate behavior. Fear of the accusing their abuser, the stigma of being abused, and a reluctance to confront the church often keep sexual abuse from being reported. Many victims of pedophile priests are unable to talk about abuse or face their accusers until they are well into adulthood, putting the crime beyond the reach of the law.
There have already been temporary statutes of limitations reprieves in four states that allowed hundreds of victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Priests to finally have their cases heard. Most notably, in 2013 Minnesota created a three-year window for past victims of abuse to file child sex abuse lawsuits against the church and other institutions, even after the statute of limitations has closed.
This led the Roman Catholic archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis to file for bankruptcy last year in the face of dozens of potential sex abuse lawsuits. The statute of limitations reprieve ends next month and advocates are lobbying for an extension or permanent removal in light of all the abuse cases that are still being uncovered.
In my own history of defending the victims of sex abuse committed by clergy I have seen the Catholic Church demonstrate time and time again that they are more concerned with preserving the “Brand,” than protecting the victims of abuse. It took decades for the Catholic Church to admit that sex abuse by clergy was even a problem. For too long the church employed the “bad apple” defense in defending its role in the sexual abuse plague. By doing so the institution could continue to operate without taking responsibility for their role by saying that guilt lay only with individual priests.
No longer. There are survivors who are finally ready to come forward, yet can’t get into the courthouse because of restrictive statute of limitation laws. Only by removing these hurdles, as they are about to do in Pennsylvania and New York, will we allow these victims to get the justice so long overdue them.