Does the Pa. grand jury report mean changes for statutes of limitations?

By Kevin Jones

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Pennsylvania capitol. Credit: Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock.

Following a major grand jury report on past sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania, discussions continue over whether and how to change the state’s legal limits on prosecution and civil lawsuits for sex abuse.

“We are devastated and outraged by the revelations of terrible sexual abuse crimes committed in the Catholic Church,” Amy B. Hill, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, told EWTN News Aug. 16.

“The time to discuss legislation will come later,” she said. “Our focus now is on improving ways that survivors and their families can recover as they continue through a difficult healing process.”

The report, released Aug. 14, claims to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests from 1947 to 2017 across six Pennsylvania dioceses. It presents a devastating portrait of efforts by Church authorities to ignore, obscure, or cover up allegations--either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.

Approximately two-thirds of the accused priests have died. The youngest offender named in the report was born in the 1990s. Due to laws regarding the statute of limitations, nearly every abuse allegation cannot be criminally prosecuted, although two indictments have been filed. One priest named in the report has been convicted of sexually assaulting a student in the early 1990s.

The grand jury report recommended creating a retroactive two-year legal window allowing victims of child sex abuse to sue even if the statute of limitations has expired.

The Pennsylvania legislature’s S.B. 261 would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child sex crimes. It would raise the age limit of underage victims seeking to file civil lawsuits from age 30 to age 50. The bill passed by a 48-0 vote in February 2017 and the House of Representatives could consider it during its next session, which begins in September.

State Reps. Aaron Bernstine and Chris Sainato are among the backers of the bill.

Bernstine said the incidents reported by the grand jury are “beyond troubling.”

“The greatest concern that I have is that our most vulnerable citizens of Pennsylvania and across the country remain safe,” he said, according to the Lawrence County news site New Castle News. “There is no place in our society for those who harm children.”

The legislation would provide additional tools to law enforcement “to hold criminals responsible for their actions,” he said.

Bernstine said he had been working closely with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the state’s Catholic bishops “to implement policies that ensure this never happens again.”

“I am thankful for the steps that they have taken, and encourage them to take additional action to ensure that the aggressors within their organization are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, in Aug. 14 remarks responding to the release of the grand jury report, backed changes to the statutes of limitations laws.

“Absolutely we would support the elimination of the criminal statute of limitations,” he said, according to New Castle News. “That is an important piece that should move forward with legislators. We support any sort of penalties for people who fail to report child abuse to public authorities.”

In states considering such bills, the local Catholic conference and other groups often voice concerns about whether abuse victims would have the equal ability to sue public institutions, which are often protected under a legal concept known as sovereign immunity, and whether a legal window for retroactive lawsuits will be allowed.

Others have argued that statutes of limitations are important, because claims from long ago cannot be investigated in-depth, or seriously defended against, meaning they are more likely to result in settlements, even when facts are limited.

In an April 7, 2017 message about a potential amendments to S.B. 261, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said some amendments to the bill help “further equalize the opportunities for survivors of sexual abuse in public institutions to access recovery of damages through the civil courts.”

It voiced concern about any amendment to allow retroactive changes to the statute of limitations.

“This proposal would, in effect, force the people who make up an organization like the Catholic Church today defend themselves against a crime that was committed in their parish, school, or charitable program years ago,” the Catholic Conference said in 2017. “Last year, the Senate held hearings and determined that changing the law retroactively would be unconstitutional in Pennsylvania.”

“Regardless, it is definitely unfair to individual Catholics today whose parishes and schools would be the targets of decades-old lawsuits.”

Pennsylvania State Rep. Mark Rozzi, 47, is backing an amendment that would also allow a two-year window for past alleged victims of sex abuse to file civil lawsuits.

The legislator says he was raped by a priest at age 13. The priest, Rev. Edward Graff, is alleged to have raped “scores of children,” the grand jury report says. The priest died in 2002 in a Texas jail while awaiting trial on charges he sexually abused a boy.

Rozzi told CNN that allowing the retroactive window “is the only avenue for these victims who are in the grand jury report” to get justice.

In 2002, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to raise the age limit for reporting criminal sex abuse charges from 23 to 30, then raised it to age 50 in 2007.

Fourteen states are considering bills about statutes of limitations on sex abuse. About 41 states have eliminated statutes of limitations for criminal prosecution of sex abuse, Reuters reports.

Since July 2013, costs related to sex abuse cases have cost the Catholic Church in the U.S. nearly $600 million, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ May report said. A U.S. bishops’ conference report in 2012 said that reporting dioceses and eparchies had paid $2.1 billion in abuse-related costs since 2004.

Hill said the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference encourages anyone who has been abused to “report the abuse and seek help immediately by calling the toll-free Pennsylvania ChildLine number at 800-932-0313 or their local law enforcement.”

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