Statutes of Limitations on Sex-Abuse Cases Often Leave Victims with No Options
By Dave Janoski firstname.lastname@example.org
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Advocates for victims of abuse by priests say Catholic Church secrecy and state law combine to deny victims their day in court.
It often takes decades for victims to come to terms with the abuse and come forward, they say. And if the abuse occurred in the 20th Century—before a recent state law that gives victims until age 30 to pursue a civil case—their legal options are closed.
"I'm not out for money," said one alleged victim, speaking on condition of anonymity because some of his relatives aren't aware of his abuse allegations. "I want to make sure no child has to suffer what I went through.
"If the statute of limitations is lifted, I have options."
A committee in the Pennsylvania General Assembly is considering a bill that would open a one-year "window" for any alleged victim of child sexual abuse to file a claim, no matter when the alleged abuse occurred.
A similar 2003 California law led to the filing of 800 suits, most against Roman Catholic dioceses in that state.
The Pennsylvania bill "addresses a class of victims that have been left behind," said Michael Piecuch, chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. "It's aimed at giving those victims their day in court and the ability to confront their abusers in courts."
But groups affiliated with Catholic bishops are opposed to the legal "windows" proposed in Pennsylvania and several other states.
"We're concerned that doing such a thing would create something that is unworkable," said Amy Beisel, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which represents the state's 10 Catholic dioceses.
"Witnesses and perpetrators have passed away and it's difficult to defend."
Although the bill applies to all victims of child sex abuse and makes no mention of any religious organization, bishops' groups see such legislation as squarely aimed at the Catholic Church.
"Because of the sad events that came to light in the church, we were kind of put in the spotlight, unfortunately," Beisel said.
Tammy Lerner, co-director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the "window" would absolutely affect the Catholic Church more than other religious groups:
"No organization in the history of the world has demonstrated such an orchestrated coverup of child sexual abuse."
Until 2002,Pennsylvania had a two-year statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases involving child sex abuse.
After a wave of abuse charges against Roman Catholic priests that year, states around the country began revising their statutes of limitations. Pennsylvania changed its criminal and civil rules to give prosecutors and victims 12 years from a victim's 18th birthday to pursue a case. But that change was not retroactive and did not apply to cases in which the statute of limitations had expired.
Pennsylvania's civil statute of limitations plays a central role in two ongoing cases against the Scranton Diocese.
In April, a Lackawanna County judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against the diocese by a New York man who claims he was abused beginning in 1961 by the late Father Francis Brennan, who was assistant pastor at St. Therese's Church in Kingston Township.
Thomas Harris' attorneys argued the two-year statute of limitations, which expired in the 1970s, should be waived because he and his family had been deceived by diocesan officials, who told them Brennan would be disciplined when he was, in fact, merely reassigned. Brennan remained an active priest until his death in 1974. Harris' attorneys have appealed the dismissal in state Superior Court.
In another case, in U.S. District Court in Scranton, David Irvin, a 20-year Navy veteran from Kentucky, is suing the diocese regarding alleged abuse by the late Father Robert N. Caparelli. The abuse began in 1969, when Caparelli was assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Old Forge and Irvin was 6, according to the suit.
Irvin turned 18 in July 1981 and joined the Navy in October 1982. Under the U.S. Military Civil Relief Act, the statute of limitations stopped running during his time in the service.
Irvin filed his suit in December 2005, about three years after leaving the Navy.
Diocesan attorneys argue that the two-year statute in effect when Irvin was allegedly abused should apply to his case, meaning his right to sue expired in October 2004.
But Irvin’s attorneys argue the new 12-year statute of limitations that went into effect while Irvin was in the Navy should apply, giving him until 2014 to file suit.
Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has spent more than 20 years representing claimants in clergy-abuse cases, said Pennsylvania is one of the more difficult states in which to pursue such cases.
"Pennsylvania is one of the states that is backward and antiquated in recognizing that survivors of abuse need time, more time than old laws allow."
Another bill is introduced
In addition to the "window" bill, another bill that would extend the criminal statute of limitations on child sex-abuse charges has been introduced in the General Assembly. It would give victims until age 50, rather than the current 30, to come forward in a criminal case.
That bill would not apply to cases in which the statute has already expired because the state constitution bars lawmakers from applying changes to criminal statutes retroactively, Piecuch said.
Last year, a grand jury impaneled by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office expressed frustration that it could not press charges against priests in the Philadelphia Diocese because of the statute of limitations. The jury reported it had substantiated allegations against 63 Philadelphia priests dating back to 1967, but could not charge any of the 54 that were still living.
"We surely would have charged them if we could have done so," the jury reported.
Since 2004, the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office has examined allegations against at least two priests accused of abusing minors, according to the office and an alleged victim, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In both cases, the alleged misconduct occurred decades ago. No charges have been filed, but both priests have been relieved of ministerial duties.
County District Attorney David Lupas did not respond to repeated requests for an interview on the topic of child abuse by priests.
The bill expanding the criminal statute of limitations is expected to reach the House floor for a vote this summer, Piecuch said.
But the "window" legislation is "another story," he said. Its future is uncertain because of opposition by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the concerns of insurance companies that represent dioceses.
Dioceses are principally worried that such "window" legislation could produce questionable claims, said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution in California. Plante has screened prospective seminarians, worked with victims and authored two books about child abuse by priests.
"Some of the cases that have emerged (in California) have been false accusations," Plante said.
But victims attorney Anderson said such concerns are "more hysteria and hype than reality."
"There has yet to be a claim in California that has been established as false or fabricated."
He noted that Catholic dioceses in California have agreed to out-of-court settlements in about 140 of the approximately 800 cases filed in that state's one-year "window." The rest are working their way through the court system[.]
Piecuch said Pennsylvania courts would be able to identify any questionable claims filed under "window" legislation.
"That's what our court system is set up to deal with. Frivolous
lawsuits will be thrown out."
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