End Statute of Limitations on Abuse Claims
By Calkins Media
March 24, 2016
The news couldnít have been more sickening or disgusting. A grand jury report recently accused two former Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese bishops of covering up or failing to act swiftly enough on sexual abuse claims against more than 50 priests from 1966 until 2011.
The report says the late Bishop James Hogan and former Bishop Joseph Adamec kept filing cabinets with 115,042 secret documents detailing victimsí abuse claims. It tells how church officials transferred the accused priests to other parishes, and intervened when local and state police made inquiries, starting in the mid-1960s.
Three ex-leaders of a Franciscan religious order have been charged in connection with the investigation for allowing a friar who was a known sexual predator to take on jobs, including a position as an athletic trainer at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, which enabled him to molest more than 100 children.
The news brought back memories of similar scandals in Boston and Philadelphia, which shocked and outraged Catholics and non-Catholics alike across the country. Catholic Church officials were quick to apologize for the grand jury report, expressing their deep concerns for the victims of abuse.
To its credit the Catholic Church has taken a number of steps to, at least, make it less likely that such abuse will ever happen again. The church now has an official position of turning over all abuse complaints to the police. Previously many of the complaints were handled internally and never turned over to the police.
The Catholic Church has also instituted sexual abuse prevention training for all its bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay members who volunteer in any manner. The training outlines the standards and expectations for all those who act in the name of the church.
However, there is one area where the church clearly needs to step up and do the right thing. That concerns the statutes of limitations for sexual abuse crimes. No charges could be brought in many of the Altoona-Johnstown cases because the statute of limitations had run its course. Under present law, civil action can be pursued only until the child sex abuse victim reaches 30, and criminal charges can only be brought until the victims reach 50.
Separate bills in the state House would eliminate all statutes of limitations for future criminal and civil cases and would open a two-year window for anyone, including people otherwise blocked by statute-of-limitations laws.
However, the Roman Catholic Church, along with the insurance industry, has fought these changes in the past, fearing the increase in claims could result in severe financial problems. According to the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, an umbrella group for every diocese and archdiocese in the state, spent $3.5 million on lobbying in Harrisburg between 2010 and 2015, according to Department of State records.
While itís hard to say how much money was spent fighting the elimination of statutes of limitations, it appears likely that at least some of the lobbying money was spent on that effort.
The Catholic Church should come out and drop its fight against eliminating the statute of limitations. It doesnít mean that all claims should be paid regardless of the evidence. Those filing the claims would still have to present reliable proof that the abuse happened.
Itís one thing to talk about being sorry, but itís another thing do something about it. By dropping its opposition to eliminating the statutes of limitations, the Catholic Church would be doing the Christian thing and showing true remorse over all the abuse that happened in the past. The church could suffer financially, but the spiritual gains would more than make up for that.