Child sex abuse: do Pa. laws thwart prosecution?
By Brandie Kessler
March 8, 2016
(Undated) -- When a grand jury last week issued a report alleging child sexual abuse over four decades by more than 50 priests in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, the grand jury said Pennsylvania's statutes of limitations for child sex crimes needs to change.
Although the abuse alleged in the grand jury report included rape of a child and other alleged acts by priests, a news release from the attorney general's office said none of the criminal acts can be prosecuted, in part because the statute of limitations has passed.
In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for criminal and civil charges vary. For criminal charges, a victim of child sexual abuse who turned 18 years old after Aug. 27, 2002, has until their 50th birthday to report the abuse. The statute of limitations for anyone who had their 18th birthday on or before Aug. 27, 2002, has already expired, since the law allows them to report only until their 30th birthday.
For civil charges, child victims have only until their 30th birthday to file, regardless of when the abuse occurred.
Advocates say that's a problem for a number of reasons.
"Child sexual abuse is considered an epidemic," said Kristen Pfautz Woolley, a survivor of child sexual abuse and the clinical director and founder of Turning Point Women's Counseling & Advocacy Center in York. She said statistics show one in 10 children will be sexually abused by age 18, and perpetrators of child sexual abuse often have many victims.
"The fact that perpetrators don't stop," Woolley said, "means that all children are at risk."
But she and other advocates said Friday that attempts to remove the statute of limitations on child sex offenses haven't gotten traction with legislators.
History of sex crimes statutes of limitations
Tunkhannock defense attorney Gerald Grimaud said statutes of limitations typically make sense if you consider a few things.
First, Grimaud said by email, witness testimony becomes less trustworthy over time. Second, Witnesses can move, become otherwise unreachable, become incompetent, or die. And third, he said, "no one should have a never-ending threat held over his/her head." He did not respond to requests to elaborate.
But debate over the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse offenses has churned among legislators for about a decade, said Cathleen Palm, founder of The Center For Children's Justice.
"Most kids are abused by someone who has total power and control of them," Palm said. "In the case of the diocese, sometimes it gets wrapped up in your religion and faith and your duty to obey."
So Grimaud's statements about why statutes of limitations make sense are valid in many cases, Palm said, but not child sexual abuse cases.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, agrees.
In a news release on his website, Rozzi said in light of the grand jury's recent findings, he is asking his colleagues to contact Rep. Ronald Marsico, R-Dauphin, and Rep. Joseph Petrarca, a Democrat who serves parts of Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties, chairmen of the house judiciary committee, and support new legislation.
House Bill 655 would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases of child sex abuse, and House Bill 951 would create a two-year window for past victims to file civil suits. The same recommendations were made in the 2005 and 2011 Philadelphia Archdiocese grand jury reports, Rozzi notes.
Why hasn't it changed?
There are a few different schools of thought on why the law hasn't changed.
Palm said she believes that people, including legislators, don't realize how problematic the current law is.
One thought on removing the statute of limitations speaks to a point Grimaud made -- that people's memories fade over time, and what if someone is falsely accused, Palm said. But removing the statute of limitations doesn't remove the burden of proving your case, she said.
Charges don't "go forward in a court of law without things like evidence," she said. "It's not like someone can waltz into court and doesn't have to prove their case."
The grand jury report released last week mentions records kept by the church, Palm noted. Still, the statute of limitations prevents any legal action for those victims.
Even if legislators were to agree that the statute of limitations for child sex crimes should be abolished, the idea of allowing a window for past victims to come forward and file civil and/or criminal charges is contentious. A 2-year window has been proposed before.
Rozzi, in a Sept. 27, 2013 statement on his website, said critics of a window "have expressed concern for the lack of records related to abuse."
Marsico, in a March 11, 2013 news release on his website, said such a window would be "unconstitutional." Marsico was not available to speak Friday, his chief of staff Autumn Southard said.
Marci Hamilton, an attorney and professor on constitutional law, said a window would not be unconstitutional.
In an email, Pamela Oddo, Rozzi's executive assistant, called the state's statute of limitations laws "arbitrary and archaic."
Palm said some legislators hear that victims have until the age of 30 to file civil cases and the age of 50 to file criminal charges and they think that's enough. With regard to the window, she said some legislators feel we've reached a point where it's unfair to look back.
"I would make the point that it's more unfair for us to not recognize how many thousands and thousands of victims never got their day in court," Palm said.
Woolley pointed out that the average person is sexually abused as a child doesn't report it until age 42. That's because, in part, it takes that long to process what happened to them and muster the courage to come forward, she said.
Woolley said the failure to eliminate the statute of limitations "just comes down to money. It's down to the special interest groups and who lobbies harder."
Rep. Mike Regan, a Republican who represents parts of York and Cumberland counties and sits on the house judiciary committee, didn't respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, who also sits on the judiciary committee, said by email Friday that she didn't know the current statute of limitations and would want to become more familiar with them before commenting.
Hamilton, the professor on constitutional law, said Pennsylvanians who want to see a change in the statute of limitations need to contact their legislators.
Southard, Marsico's chief of staff, said he would be issuing a news release about the statute of limitations this week.
Southard said she didn't have any specifics about the release, "but it will be addressing the obvious issue that's out there right now."
Victims of sexual violence, both children and adults, can get help through the Access-York Victim Assistance Center. A 24/7 hotline is available to call at 1-800-422 -3204. All calls are confidential.
If you or someone you know is a victim of child sexual abuse who has encountered the statute of limitations in your case, we'd like to talk with you. Please email reporter Brandie Kessler at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 717-771-2035.
This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between York Daily Record and WITF.