Priest Abuse Revelations Spur Pa. House Panel to Action on Statute of Limitations
By Brad Bumsted
April 1, 2016
After a grand jury report last month detailing widespread child molestation by priests, a state House panel next week will consider legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations in criminal child abuse cases and expand the time limit for civil litigation.
The statewide investigative grand jury under state Attorney General Kathleen Kane found that hundreds of children were molested for more than four decades by as many as 50 priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. But no one was charged with crimes because many had died and laws that limit the amount of time that elapses between an alleged crime and an indictment barred prosecution.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney David Hickton, whose office convicted a Somerset County priest sentenced last month to 16 months in prison, is reviewing whether his office can use the Racketeering Influenced Corruption Organized Act — created by Congress to go after mob leaders — for civil lawsuits to provide compensation to victims.
It would be the first civil use of the RICO law in the nationwide priest abuse scandal, said Marci Hamilton, an expert on statutes of limitations. The Tribune-Review reported two weeks ago that state Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, a former law enforcement agent, wrote to Hickton asking him to explore use of the RICO statute.
Federal prosecutors accused the Rev. Joseph D. Maurizio Jr., 70, of Central City, of molesting minor boys during mission trips to a shelter for street kids and orphans near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He was convicted by a federal jury in 2015 of illicit sexual conduct in foreign places, possession of child pornography and international money laundering.
“We have federal tools available,” Hickton said Friday, referring to RICO. “It has a civil component, which has no statute of limitations,” he said.
Hickton stressed no decision has been made.
Sexual abuse and personal injury are not “predicate acts” under RICO, said Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The underlying crime must be financial, she said. However, if a court can be persuaded the church covered up child abuse to protect its financial assets, “That is a viable theory,” she said.
The RICO act, approved by Congress in 1970, usually applies to criminal organizations, said David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “But we believe it can and should be used against bishops and other church staff who repeatedly endanger kids, deceive parishioners, move predators, hide evidence and refuse to call law enforcement about known and suspected clergy child sex crimes and cover-ups.”
Vereb said he has no idea if his letter to Hickton prompted the federal prosecutor to consider RICO suits. He said at the time, he understood federal authorities had probably considered it.
The House Judiciary Committee will consider the legislation eliminating criminal statutes of limitations in child sex cases. “They've been working on it for some time, but the grand jury report put an exclamation point behind it,” said Steve Miskin, a House GOP spokesman. The legislation will be replaced with a new bill, but it would still eliminate criminal statutes of limitation, Miskin said. It would expand, not eliminate, the civil statute of limitations as proposed in H.B. 655 by Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington.
Some lawmakers want to go further and create a two-year retroactive window, that starts with the effective date of the legislation, for prosecuting those cases.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Reading, who says he was raped by a priest as a teenager, said failure to provide retroactivity “is truly unjust to victims of the past.”
House Judiciary Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Harrisburg, opposes a retroactive component, Miskin said.
Rozzi said the full House might offer amendments to the bill Wednesday.
The bill under consideration next week “is a good step,” said Chuck Ardo, a Kane spokesman. Kane “has been a strong proponent of eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.”
Generally, victims have until age 30 to file civil litigation. The proposed bill is expected to increase the limit to age 50. Criminal charges generally can be filed until a victim turns 50. The proposal is expected to allow charges throughout a victim's lifetime.
Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and firstname.lastname@example.org