2019 Is a Banner Year for SOL Reform

geographic chart of state sol reform legislation 2019

by Marci A. Hamilton
Original post on verdict.justia

This is a historic year for child sex abuse victims. Millions have been empowered by statute of limitations, or SOL, reform in the United States.

Never before have we seen this many states step up. In recent years about a dozen states would consider such legal change and less than a handful would pass something. Those numbers are dramatically higher in 2019. Forty states and the District of Columbia introduced SOL legislation and over half, 23 states, and D.C. have passed progressive reforms for the victims. In 2019, 18 states have extended or eliminated the criminal SOL; 14 states have extended or eliminated the civil SOL; and 9 states have revived civil SOLs. For even more details of this historic year, check out the 2019 SOL Report Summary.

What is SOL reform?

It hands victims power and society the truth. It puts perpetrators in jail. It forces the ones who endangered children to release their confidential files to the public. It warns institutions that they must change or suffer consequences. There is no good reason not to pass SOL reform.

The #MeToo movement invited every victim to come forward. The SOL Reform movement says to every victim—it’s not fair of us to ask you to tell your story and then ignore how our laws kept you silent. You deserve more than a microphone—you have a right to power against those who hurt you. This is a revolution that is reorganizing dangerous power structures.

Why 2019?

I would posit it is the trifecta of 2018: First, over 200 brave survivors read their victim impact statements against their abuser, Larry Nassar, and the media gave these historic proceedings the attention they deserved. Second, there was Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s grand jury report into six Catholic dioceses, which made Pennsylvania the first state to complete grand jury investigations into every diocese. Shapiro’s report reinforced the message of the previous grand jury reports in Philadelphia and Johnstown: bishops treated children and the victims as collateral damage to their own personal dramas. The world responded with disgust and impatience with the Church’s foot-dragging. Third, investigative reporter Julie Brown and the Miami Herald released their groundbreaking “Perversion of Justice” report on Jeffrey Epstein’s international child sex-trafficking operation, which showed the corruption of federal prosecutors serving a powerful and well-connected man and the willful blindness of employees, friends, and guests in the upper crust of society to the exploitation of girls. By the end of 2018, most of us including lawmakers had simply had enough and it was time to do something.

Of course, 2018 built on the years of work by the likes of Barbara Blaine and David Clohessy of SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), my team at Cardozo Law School and now at Penn and CHILD USA, and dozens of other organizations in each state, along with thousands of brave victims fighting through the trauma to get lawmakers to do the right thing.

This movement was kicked off by the 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight report that disclosed the cover up in the Boston Archdiocese. What each state has done since 2002 is described here in CHILD USA’s 2019 Report on SOL reform since 2002.

What is left to do? 

As the 2019 SOL Report explains, states like New York, New Jersey, California, and North Carolina took major strides this year, but there are states that are falling farther and farther behind the curve.

Pennsylvania is now one of the worst in the country in both criminal and civil categories despite the fact that SOL reform was proposed as long ago as 2005 in the 2005 Philadelphia Grand Jury Report and no state has studied the problem more than Pennsylvania.

avg-state-ranking-for-criminal-and-civil-sols

Pennsylvania also has the distinction of introducing the worst reform bill in the United States this year when a bill was introduced and passed in the Assembly that requires victims to obtain a constitutional amendment as a pre-condition to obtaining window legislation; in other words, they were being asked to advocate for 3-4 more years while the institutions responsible for their abuse had even more time to move assets and shred files. The Pennsylvania Senate will take up the measure today.

Here is how the Pennsylvania constitutional amendment system works: They would have to get identical language through both houses twice and then win a state referendum. That’s all! The cruelty of that approach was made clear last week when a Pennsylvania constitutional amendment to enact Marsy’s Law, which is a movement to increase victim’s rights to notice in the criminal justice system, failed. Why did it fail? Because it was clearly unconstitutional! That’s correct: the constitutional amendment language was itself unconstitutional. Those who worked on Marsy’s Law in Pennsylvania were lulled into believing that all they had to do was persuade the public to vote for it. They invested in PSAs and their stories were heartbreaking. But its language doomed it from the start. By the time the measure was on the state ballot, the courts had imposed a preliminary injunction. Does anyone think that the bishops or the insurance lobbyists wouldn’t work to plant such a poison pill in a constitutional amendment process for a window?

It’s high time that Pennsylvania follow the irrefutable logic of SOL reform and give the public the window legislation it needs now.

Other states where there is a ray of hope and that need to empower the victims and stop shielding abusers and their enablers include Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island. In the end, every state has a moral obligation to lift up the victims, because it was the state’s legal and social systems that created the conditions for the abuse and the coverups.

We are in the midst of a civil rights movement for children. The reality is that children will not thrive in a society where individuals and institutions can ignore child sex abuse without consequence. It’s time to focus on the facts and do what is right.

About Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, and Fox Family Pavilion Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania; the founder, CEO, and Academic Director of the nonprofit think tank to prevent child abuse and neglect, CHILD USA, and author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. Her email address is marcih@sas.upenn.edu.

New Jersey Governor Will Sign Bill Providing Sex Abuse Survivors Opportunity to Bring Lawsuits

new jersey governor murphy

The fight has been long and hard.  It has taken two decades for survivors of sexual abuse to get justice.  New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bill today. 

Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says the impact the law will have cannot be overstated.

“This will finally allow survivors in New Jersey more time to come forward and hold their perpetrators accountable for the crimes that they committed,” she said.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops, had successfully pressured lawmakers to steer clear of the legislation for many years. That changed, however, after a Pennsylvania grand jury investigated and released the names of 300 clergy members credibly accused of sexual assault last summer.

In September, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced he was launching a similar effort to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy within the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey, and any efforts to cover up such abuse.

The legislation would dramatically expand the statute of limitations on sexual abuse. It would give child victims until age 55 or within seven years of realizing they were abused to file a lawsuit. It would also give survivors who were previously blocked from suing their perpetrators a two-year window to bring cases. Democratic State Senator Joe Vitale is the lead sponsor of the bill.

This year, 35 states are considering legislation to expand the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, according to Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the group Child USA.

“This is the most active year in history on statute of limitations issues,” Hamilton said.

New York recently expanded its civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse and dozens of other states including California and Virginia are considering similar measures.

“I think we’ve reached a point where the public is finally 100 percent behind the victims,” Hamilton said. “Nobody seems to be afraid anymore of the institutions.”

The Catholic Church in New Jersey has historically fought this type of legislation and the church lobbyists have been successful for nearly two decades.  Not so this year.  Now, the 5 dioceses in New Jersey have said they agree with the legislation in principle but have urged the Governor to delay passage until they complete their recently launched compensation program.  The New Jersey compensation program, similar to the ones in New York and Pennsylvania, puts aside issues of liability and evaluates the claims in terms of compensation.  However, the program excludes religious order priests which remain an under-documented demographic in terms of sexual abuse.

Once the Governor signs this legislation, survivors will have options in terms of seeking justice against the institutions which allowed the abuse. 

Catholic Church Reports Dramatic Rise in Sexual Abuse Claims Last Year

Sex Abuse Claims Rise in Chatholic Church

The Boston Globe is reporting that the Catholic Church in the United States experienced a sharp increase in abuse claims last year.  It is the largest rise since the country’s Catholic bishops began keeping tallies of claims in 2004.

The annual report from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which covers July 2015 to June 2016, said 911 victims came forward with allegations the church deemed credible, the vast majority of which were from adults who said they were abused when they were children.  The bishops’ report noted that the previous year there were only 384 claims of abuse.

The report attributed the rise in claims to Minnesota, the state temporarily lifted its statute of limitations in 2013 to allow alleged victims older than 24 to sue for past abuse, and the deadline to file such claims was in late May 2016.

However, other factors such as the documentary film Spotlight which served to bring the issue back into the forefront of public attention.

Victims who came forward during the most recent reporting year included 26 minors, the report said.

The report’s definition of “minors” included people under age 18 or anyone who “habitually lacks the use of reason.”

As of June 30, 2016, two of the 26 cases had been substantiated, while 11 had been deemed unsubstantiated by church officials. The rest remained under investigation, the report said.

The offenders in the substantiated cases were removed from ministry, as were 26 other priests or deacons accused of past abuse, officials said.

The report did not break down the location of the allegations but said its data was based on information from all 196 diocese and eparchies of the bishops conference and from 180 of the 232 religious institutes of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

The latest figures mean that between 1950 and June 2016, more than 18,500 people nationwide made clergy abuse allegations deemed credible by US Catholic officials, and more than 6,700 clerics have been accused of abuse, church records show.

Activists have questioned whether the church’s count of clergy sex abuse victims is lower than the actual total.  The Media Report, a conservative online site, hit back against the Globe’s article accusing the newspaper of attempting to keep an old story alive by rehashing old news and false claims.  Of course, they also include the obligatory criticism of lawyers.  The truth of the matter is this:  lawyers who are involved in this fight for justice are doing it to help the survivors of sexual abuse and those who come forward show a great deal of courage and their claims have been shown to be true.

Guam Senate Approves Elimination of Statute of Limitations in Sex Abuse Cases

guam-statute-of-limitations-sexual-abuse

Guam’s senators overwhelmingly passed Senate bill 326 with 13 yes votes and two excused absences.  The bill will now go to the Governor’s office for signature.

The senators took up the bill in response to recent sexual abuse allegations against Guam Catholic priests and the local archbishop Anthony Apuron.  Several men have come forward alleging Apuron molested them when they were altar boys at Mt. Carmel Church in Agat where he had served as a priest. These same men testified in support of the bill when it had its public hearing.

Pope Francis placed the archbishop on leave soon after the sexual abuse allegations were made against him.  

Guam Catholics continue to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic priests serving in Guam.  As in other dioceses, the priests and archbishop who have been accused maintain their innocence.

On September 4th, approximately 80 sexual abuse advocates and survivors gathered in front of Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica in Hagåtña to protest the Catholic Church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis in Guam.  Members of the Concerned Catholics of Guam (CCOG), Laity Forward Movement (LFM) and Silent No More joined the gathering.

Lou Klitzke, a member of LFM, told the Post that protester turnout has been steadily increasing over the past few weeks.

“Everybody keeps coming out,” she said. “We have a very dedicated group of people.”

If you or  a loved one has been abused by a Catholic priest in Guam, please contact Saunders & Walker today for a free consultation.

Minnesota Statute of Limitations Closing

In 2013 Minnesota legislature came together in a historic bipartisan show of support to pass The Child Victims Act. Under that new state law, the civil statute of limitations that previously gave child sex abuse victims until age 24 to sue was removed. Victims over age 24 were given a three-year window to sue for past abuse. Anyone under 24 before the law went into effect — has an unlimited time to file.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, during this historic three-year window more than 800 people brought abuse claims against churches, the Boy Scouts, schools and a children’s theater company. Previously unknown offenders have been exposed. Two Roman Catholic dioceses filed for bankruptcy. Lists of credibly accused priests and thousands of documents have been released. And the heightened scrutiny played a part in the downfall of two bishops. Read More

PA Statute of limitations

Statute of limitations

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.