Commentary: Change the law in Pa. to hold child sex abusers accountable

By Thomas P. Murt
March 14, 2016

This undated photo shows Bishop James Hogan, right, and Pope John Paul II in Rome. Hogan and Joseph Adamec, two Roman Catholic bishops who led a Pennsylvania diocese, helped cover up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by over 50 priests or religious leaders over a 40-year period.

"I have greatly sinned ... in what I have done and in what I have failed to do." - From the Confiteor, a prayer said during the Penitential Act during a Roman Catholic Mass

In Western Pennsylvania, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown knowingly protected priests who were known child molesters, according to a grand jury report. The diocese, the report continued, through church connections and pathetic public officials, protected the child-molesting priests from law enforcement and prosecution.

Perhaps the worst crime that officials committed is never taking subsequent action to protect children from these child-molesting priests. In the diocese, when a priest was found to have sexually abused a child, the normal protocol was to simply move him to another parish, offer a cash payment to the family, and/or to send the child-molesting priest on retreat, only to have him returned to ministry in the future.

The grand jury report of child sexual abuse in the diocese is even more graphic, sickening, and disgusting than the grand jury report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. If you have the stomach for it, you can find it on the Internet. The link will caution you about the graphic nature of the material.

Make no mistake, as ugly and painful as the latest sex abuse scandal is, this is not the last one we will hear about. While many victims are finding the strength to come forward, no doubt there are thousands of others who are still hiding in shame and humiliation. The true shame and humiliation, however, is not theirs at all. That belongs to Pennsylvania's legislators, who still collectively refuse to take action to reform the statute of limitations as it relates to child sex abuse.

In the Altoona-Johnstown case, documentation, e-mails, letters, memoranda, handwritten notes, and other official church records exist proving that not only did the sexual abuse of children take place, but also that those in church leadership knew about it and did nothing to protect children. It seems that institutional risk management trumped the protection of children. Even if memories of what happened have faded, what is contained in these documents is detailed enough to send child-molesting priests and other guilty parties to jail for their crimes against children.

Changing the statute of limitations might help protect children in the future, but what about the thousands of men and women already sexually abused and suffering in silence? These blameless victims had their innocence stolen by a priest or other abuser. Many have experienced a lifetime of shame, broken relationships, substance abuse, or other negative behaviors. Some victims of child sexual abuse have taken their own lives, and it is not hard to comprehend this pattern.

After all, this is a population of wounded and suffering victims, whose childhood was stolen from them. And the people who have the power to help them, the legislators, won't even try. That's enough to test anyone's mettle.

The latest grand jury report says that these victims deserve a "finite" open window on the statute of limitations so they can step forward, and face their abusers and the entities that protected them. One of my closest colleagues, Rep. Mark Rozzi, has lived this pain and anguish, and is a daily reminder to those of us in Harrisburg who understand that something must be done legislatively.

If you want to help change the law, and afford some measure of respect and validation to the victims of child sexual abuse, contact the office of State Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, at 717-783-2014 and demand that they move House Bill 951 for a vote as soon as possible.

This bill does what every grand jury has asked: it opens a two-year window so that victims of sexual abuse, who missed the statute of limitations, can pursue civil claims against the abuser who robbed them of their innocence and childhood. Evidence exists for many of these claims to be proven beyond any doubt. All we need are some courageous elected officials in Harrisburg who are willing to do the right thing.




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