New Laws Could Subject Catholic Church to Suits

By Alison Hawkes
The Herald-Standard
December 6, 2006

Harrisburg - Now that criminal laws against child sex abuse have been tightened, victims' advocates are using that political foothold to try to open the Roman Catholic Church and other groups to civil lawsuits and potentially multimillion-dollar damage awards.

Advocates are pleased that the new criminal laws, requiring reporting of child abuse and extending the time victims have to make criminal complaints to age 50, will help with the prosecution of new child abuse cases.

But what's left outstanding are the old abuse cases, including the hundreds of victims identified in the 2005 grand jury report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which never have had legal closure.

Advocates say in the new legislative term they will push for a one-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits for past abuses. The idea was one of the grand jury's seven recommendations. It faltered in the Legislature this year even as the recommended criminal changes advanced.

"The criminal issues deals with the future. In other words, when this happens in the future we'll have the right tools," said John Salveson, president of the Bryn Mawr-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. "The civil side is focused on the people that have really been damaged already, to give them a shot at justice."

In California, the only state to have a one-year civil window, the nation's largest archdiocese in Los Angeles this week announced it will be paying $60 million to settle 45 lawsuits.

Other states - notably Colorado, Maryland, and Ohio - have tried but failed to pass the one-year window, according to David Clohessy, president of the national office of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"In every state there's been one key obstacle," said Clohessy. "And it's the incredibly expensive and shrewd public relations and lobbying campaign of bishops."

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is against civil windows. Spokeswoman Amy Beisel said reasons are the financial ramifications and the difficulty in dealing with such old cases.

"We feel it would be unworkable in that as time passes discovering the truth is harder and even impossible when witnesses are deceased or have moved," she said. "There is a different standard of proof for civil cases that does indeed make it harder to defend."

Beisel could not say whether the Catholic Conference, the public affairs wing of the Roman Catholic Church, would lobby to oppose the civil window if it's brought up again in Harrisburg.

Salveson has an alternate theory on the reason for the opposition.

"What they're really afraid of is going to court and having to open their files and demonstrate what's really going on," he said.

Salveson said internal documents could expose abusers still in office and the supervisors who protected them.

The civil window would apply evenly to all child sex abuse cases and could be lobbed against civil organizations as well. But there's no doubt that what's initiating the effort is the Philadelphia priest abuse scandal and cover-up. The grand jury documented 63 priests who abused hundreds of children going back decades, and a system of cover-up by church leaders who knowingly transferred abusers to other parishes and intimidated and retaliated against victims who came forward.

Most of the victims were unable to file criminal charges because the law limited the filing of childhood sex abuse to age 30; it's now age 50. Kathy McDonnell, chief legislative liaison for the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, said the victims usually didn't step forward until middle age.

"We saw an extreme amount of reluctance ... and they don't tend to do so until 40 or 45 as a result of some event," she said. "There seems to be a triggering mechanism, rehab therapy or whatever it may be."

The result has been incomplete justice, she said.

"The next battle is the civil window. What do you do with the wreckage of the past?" she said.

Beisel said Pennsylvania parishes have moved forward in implementing a number of policy changes, well in advance of the changes to criminal code, based on the 2002 Dallas Charter by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though criticized at the time for not going far enough, the policy changes do require reporting child sex abuse to police, the removal of abusive priests, and a system of review, among others.

But the grand jury said in its report that opening the door to civil lawsuits would "ensure not just a criminal penalty but a continuing financial disincentive to engage in abuse."

Rep. Douglas Reichley, a Lehigh County Republican, said his bill for a civil-window didn't get past committee. Some people worried about hauling in coaches from incidents 25 years ago, he said. And the Catholic Conference and insurance companies threatened they could go bankrupt from a flurry of lawsuits, he said.

"The respect a lot of people have for the Catholic church and the threat of the financial impact on the services provided by the archdioceses, like schools, that's something which causes (lawmakers) some hesitation about going down that road," Reichley said. "That's why there was a greater willingness to pursue the criminal expansion rather than the civil."

The Legislature has tried similar windows for filing asbestos litigation and for convicted criminals to file appeals claiming ineffective legal counsel, Reichley said.

But he's measured about the chance of success for a civil window on child abuse.

"I'll reintroduce it, but I'm not going to be unrealistic about the reluctance of members to have a lot of public discussion about this," he said.

Alison Hawkes can be reached at 717-705-6330 or


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.