Bill Aims to Loosen Limits on Suits
Statutes of Limitations on Sex-Abuse Cases Often Leave Victims with No Options
By Dave Janoski firstname.lastname@example.org
July 9, 2006
[See other articles in this feature:
Sins of Our Fathers, by Dave Janoski, Times Leader (7/9/06)
Shame of the Diocese: Allegations? Move Father Caparelli. More Allegations?
Move Father Caparelli. Convictions? Keep Quiet, by Dave Janoski, Times
Feel Hurt, Angry, Guilty by Association: When Scandal Breaks, Say Innocent
Pastors, They and Flock Get Caught in Turmoil, by Mary Therese Biebel,
Times Leader (7/9/06)
and Accusations, Times Leader (7/9/06) [summaries, assignments, and
photos of accused priests]
Church Re-Educates Itself: Changing Attitudes: The Catholic Church Has
Mandated Special Training to Recognize Sexual Abuse and Abusers, by
Mark Guydish, Times Leader (7/9/06)
Note from the Newsroom: the Church Series, by Matt Golas, Times Leader
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
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
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
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
"We surely would have charged them if we could have done so,"
the jury reported.
"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."
Attorney who has represented claimants in clergy-abuse cases
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 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."