Pennsylvania lawmakers: Victims of child sexual abuse deserve to have their day in court

Lancaster Online
April 3, 2016

Altoona's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament — part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown — is seen in this photo taken in March. Two bishops who led the diocese helped to conceal the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests and other religious leaders over a 40-year period, according to a grand jury report issued March 1.


The movie “Spotlight,” which won the Best Picture Oscar this year, detailed the Boston Globe’s tenacious reporting on the sexual abuse scandal and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, under Cardinal Bernard Law. In 2002, the Globe wrote some 600 stories on the subject of abusive priests, and the church’s system of covering up the priestly abuse. A similar pattern of cover-up  took place in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane. A statewide investigating grand jury determined that hundreds of children in that diocese were sexually abused over a period of at least 40 years by at least 50 priests or religious leaders. “Evidence and testimony reviewed by the grand jury also revealed a troubling history of superiors within the Diocese taking action to conceal the child abuse as part of an effort to protect the institution’s image,” Kane’s office said in a March 1 statement.

If only “Spotlight” was a fictional creation of Hollywood, and not the all-too-real story of the Catholic Church’s systematic pattern of hiding priestly child sexual abuse.

If only the story told by The Boston Globe pertained only to Boston, and not to Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, and Los Angeles, and Altoona-Johnstown, and dioceses across the globe.

Unfortunately, wishing doesn’t make it so.

“Spotlight” highlighted just how essential newspaper journalism can and should be. It showed how the unglamorous work of poring through documents, filing Right-to-Know requests and doggedly pursuing sources can yield a story that changes institutions and, more importantly, people’s lives.

The Boston story told in “Spotlight” is playing out now in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

And the story about how the Catholic Church wields its power will play out this week in Harrisburg, as the state Legislature considers reforming  Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitations for cases of child sexual abuse.

Advocates for victims of child sexual abuse have been pressing for such reform for years, arguing that it can take years, even decades, before victims of such abuse are ready to come forward, and so they must be given the time to do so.

Their efforts have been blocked largely by the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of Catholic dioceses in this state.

The church will not oppose any legislation to eliminate “the criminal statute of limitations, just as we did not oppose legislation in 2006 that increased the criminal statute of limitations to age 50,” said Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, in an email to LNP.

It appears, however, that the church will oppose any legislation that seeks to eliminate the civil statute, which now holds that victims only have until they turn 30 to file a civil case.

Hill said that in civil cases, “ anyone can file a suit,” and cases “can be filed against third-party organizations that benefit children even if the alleged perpetrators are deceased or there is little evidence to make a case. Defending these lawsuits costs millions in legal costs, even if no allegation is ever proven, and still no abusers will go to jail.”

She added: “It is particularly burdensome for these organizations if  they have to defend cases retroactively.”

And sadly, there you have it.

The church has established a stringent zero-tolerance policy on child abuse, and now requires that any such abuse be reported to law enforcement, rather than be handled within the church, as it used to be.

We’re encouraged by these changes, and by the church’s emphasis now on protecting the child and not the institution.

But there are numerous victims of child sexual abuse in past decades who deserve their day in court, should they choose to ask for it.  And by lobbying against giving victims that opportunity, the church once again appears to be placing its own interests before those of the child sexual abuse victims who have suffered great and lasting harm.

Past victims include state Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County, who writes persuasively in today’s Perspective section about the need to eliminate both the civil and criminal statutes of limitations and — crucially —to open a window to allow past victims to bring civil suit.

And they include Maureen Powers, the retired CEO of YWCA Lancaster, who wrote movingly in LNP on March 6 of her own experience of being sexually molested by a prominent priest in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese when she was between the ages of 12 and 14.


“Making the child sexual abuse statute of limitations reform retroactive would serve justice, especially in cases of deliberate, institutionalized cover-up such as has occurred in the Catholic Church,” Powers told LNP in an email last week.

The Altoona-Johnstown diocese, she noted, “callously allowed more than 50 priests to molest children with impunity for 40 years,” and  “should be brought to justice.  It is unlikely they will be unless the new law is retroactive.  There is no statute of limitations on the damage done to the victims/survivors.”

She knows this, of course, not only because of her own abuse at the hands of a trusted priest, but as someone who led the YWCA — an organization that serves sexual abuse victims — for decades.

We urge our lawmakers, as they consider statute of limitation reform, to keep their focus on the victims of child sexual abuse, past and present.

The church and other institutions — public and private — must be held liable for their failures, even past ones, to protect children.

We understand that this will mean real costs for the insurance industry, too. But as Kristen Houser of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape says, “victims should have the right to try to recoup some part or form of what was stolen from them as children in front of the financial concerns of major corporations who are in the industry of profiting from risk.”

The YWCA Lancaster’s Sexual Assault Prevention & Counseling Center’s 24-hour hotline: 392-7273

To report child abuse, call Pennsylvania's ChildLine at 800-932-0313.

Join the LNP live chat with Rep. Mark Rozzi at noon on Monday.



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