Kane wants limits lifted on sex abuse reports
By John Finnerty
March 1, 2016
HARRISBURG — The attorney general wants to lift limits on when charges can be filed in cases of sex crimes committed against children, in light of revelations of abuse involving dozens of priests in western Pennsylvania over decades.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane called on lawmakers to abolish the statute of limitations while detailing allegations that two bishops in the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown had concealed the abuse of children by 35 priests over four decades.
Kane said her office has no plans to charge anyone based on the findings by a special grand jury, in part because of statutes of limitations.
Some victims are unwilling to testify in court, and some accused priests are dead, she said.
Victims now have until the age 50 to report child sex abuse to prosecutors. Until age 30, victims may file civil lawsuits against their abusers and others who may be responsible for allowing the abuse to happen.
“The grand jury has recommended, and I have always stated, the statute of limitations should be eliminated,” Kane said. “There is no time period that we can put on how long a child should have to muster the strength to step out into the public.”
The recommendation is “a no-brainer,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a St. Louis-based advocacy group.
“Pennsylvania lawmakers should stop being cowed or fooled by slick Catholic lobbyists,” he said. “We also hope that every Pennsylvania parent will prod lawmakers to fix the state’s predator-friendly statutes of limitations.”
He said “precious few” priests accused of sex crimes against children are convicted.
Clohessy pointed to data compiled by the website bishopaccountability.org, which documents 4,000 priests publicly accused of sexual abuse of children in the United States. Only 1 in 10 of those priests have been convicted.
Getting rid of the limit on filing charges would change rules moving forward but doesn’t help victims of prior abuse.
“That’s the only way justice will be served. Retroactivity would help so many victims,” said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, who has proposed creating a two-year window for civil claims targeting child sexual abuse. Delaware and California opened similar windows allowing old sexual abuse allegations to be litigated.
Rozzi said he was abused by a priest in 1983, when he was 13. At that time, the state’s statute of limitations was five years for criminal prosecution and two years for civil claims.
“That was a joke,” he said.
The priest was transferred out of state and later charged after molesting additional victims, Rozzi said.
A decade ago, Pennsylvania relaxed its legal limits on reporting abuse in response to the cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Rozzi said the new limits are better but still aren’t good enough.
However, the new statutes were deemed “adequate” by a task force studying child protection four years ago in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State. It found Pennsylvania to be “one of the most ‘generous’ states in terms of the length of time” a victim has to report a crime.
New York gives victims of child sex abuse five years to file civil suit. Ohio’s time limit to file a civil lawsuit mirrors Pennsylvania’s. In Maryland, victims have until age 25 to file a civil lawsuit. Ohio gives child sex victims until the age of 38 to seek criminal prosecution. Victims have three years after the crime to seek prosecution in Maryland and they have five years to seek charges in New York.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference agreed with the task force’s conclusion on the matter, spokeswoman Amy B. Hill said.
That task force suggested changes such as expanding the number of people legally required to report suspicions about child abuse, and broadening those who must get a state background check to work with children.
Allegations presented to the grand jury, which has spent two years investigating abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, span four decades. The panel noted that one of the alleged victims is now 70 years old.
“The victims of child sexual abuse never escape their victimization; it is inequitable and unjust to allow their victimizers to escape accountability,” the grand jury stated in its report released Tuesday.
Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, said the limit on civil lawsuits, at a minimum, should be extended to match the limits for criminal prosecution.
Some dismiss civil actions as driven by greed, she said, but advocates say they are among the best ways to hold institutions accountable.
The grand jury investigating the Altoona-Johnstown diocese agreed: “Organizations which have a history of secrecy in regards to child abuse allegations will consider meaningful reform when their failures have financial cost.”
Former Bishop Joseph Adamec, 80, refused to testify as part of the grand jury investigation, citing possible self-incrimination. In a court filing, his attorney said the accusations against the Adamec are unfounded, The Associated Press reported.
Adamec required 14 priests accused of sexual abuse to undergo psychiatric evaluation, his attorney said. Nine of them were suspended or removed from ministry, and five who were reinstated never re-offended, his attorney wrote.
The other bishop targeted by the grand jury, Rev. James Hogan, died in 2005.
The current bishop, Rev. Mark Bartchak, is not accused of wrongdoing.
Hill, of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said the church has stepped up its efforts to stop predator priests.
“Since 2002, the Catholic Church has been committed to the goal of ending child sexual abuse by aggressively responding to allegations and educating adults and children about the signs of abuse,” she said. “Today, the dioceses have zero-tolerance policies for clergy and employees accused of misconduct with children. Any allegation of child sexual abuse must be immediately reported to the proper law enforcement agency.”