Altoona Priest Abuse Scandal Renews Calls for End to Statutes of Limitations
By Kate Giammarise
March 3, 2016
A 147-page grand jury report that outlines decades of child sexual abuse in excruciating detail in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has revived calls for Pennsylvania to eliminate its statute of limitations for that crime.
A statewide grand jury report made public this week by the attorney general's office detailed how hundreds of children were sexually abused over a period of at least 40 years by priests or other religious leaders in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. No one was charged because some of the perpetrators have died, and because the statute of limitations has run out on the crimes, some of which dated to the 1940s.
Statutes of limitations are laws that set a time limit on how long after a crime it can be prosecuted. The main rationale for such laws is that the longer it takes to prosecute alleged wrongdoing, the more stale the evidence gets and the less reliable it is. Witnesses may have forgotten the events or have died, and it may be impossible to get physical evidence. Another reason for time limits is that plaintiffs have a responsibility to pursue their claims in a timely manner, and that it is unfair for them to hold out the possibility of prosecution for an extended period.
Advocates say the grand jury's report — coupled with the fact that victims of child abuse often take decades to report it — highlights why the law needs to change.
"We know that delayed disclosure is the norm in cases of sexual violence, so we need to have laws that provide safety, healing and path to justice when victims do come forward," said Jennifer Storm, victim advocate for the commonwealth.
"Child sex crimes are just different than other crimes," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Most kids don't have the words to report the crime nor the emotional ability to report the crime," she said.
State lawmakers have made changes to statute of limitations laws in the past, both in 2002 and 2006, following major abuse scandals. In criminal cases, the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania now extends until the child victim's 50th birthday; in civil cases, the law extends until a child victim's 30th birthday. These changes could not be retroactively applied to past crimes, however, when statute of limitations laws were different.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference "holds the same position as the Task Force for Child Protection, which closely examined Pennsylvania's statute of limitations and recommended that it not be changed," said spokeswoman Amy Hill, who also pointed out that the statute of limitation laws have been changed over the years. The Task Force was created by the General Assembly in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University. A number of new laws were passed after it made recommendations.
The grand jury that examined the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown recommended Pennsylvania abolish the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against minors
"Victim advocates and previous grand juries have recommended such action," the report noted. "However, this grand jury again recognizes a terrible fact. Child predators will offend on children, consume their innocence, and escape justice until there can be no temporal escape from their crimes. This report detailed an account of a 70-year-old victim who came forward to report the devastating trauma of their youth. 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's report detailed a number of instances in which victims did not report what had happened for years, and even decades.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City, and expert on statute of limitations laws, rates Pennsylvania's as generally mediocre in terms of what they afford victims of child sexual abuse. Other states have eliminated criminal statutes of limitations. Some have enacted so-called "window" legislation that would give victims a period to bring a civil lawsuit for past crimes, she said. The grand jury also recommends the Legislature enact a "window" for civil actions.
State Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Westmoreland, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said it is possible legislators could act on changing statutes of limitations laws, though he said legislators have to try to strike a balance. "You want to make sure that people involved in the case are available, that information involved in the case is still available."
There are a number of proposals to change statutes of limitations laws in both the House and Senate, though none has advanced beyond the committee level.
He also noted the law has been changed in the past. "I don't think it's fair to say in Harrisburg that there is a deaf ear on this," he said.