Justice for Sex-abuse Victims Dividing Lawmakers
By John Finnerty
April 8, 2016
Amid outrage over hundreds of cases of child sex abuse committed by priests, lawmakers are now divided over how much time victims should have to seek justice.
A proposal to lift the time limit for prosecution of sex-abuse crimes, in current form, only looks to the future but does nothing for victims of long-ago crimes.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, calls it a “slap in the face.”
Rozzi, himself a survivor of sex abuse by a priest, has led efforts to eliminate statutes of limitations. He plans a proposal to allow victims of old crimes to sue their abusers, he said, which will bring forward victims “from every corner of the state.”
Debate is unfolding in the aftermath of a grand jury’s finding that priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese abused hundreds of children, over four decades – actions that were covered up by church leaders.
Those crimes happened too long ago to bring sex-abuse charges – in criminal or civil court. Legal limits depend on the age of a victim, who may seek criminal charges until they turn 50, and make civil claims until age 30.
The House proposal removes the age limit for criminal charges, and allow victims to press a civil claim until age 50. But it would only apply to new cases. The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure by a 26-1 vote on Tuesday.
David Hickton, the U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh, has said he is considering racketeering charges against church officials who covered up the abuse.
But Rozzi said lawmakers can allow victims in the diocese to seek justice, regardless of what the U.S. attorney does.
Barring old claims rewards the church for successfully covering up crimes until statutes of limitations passed, he said.
“Now that we have this information, we have to make it right,” he said.
Controversy over what should happen is dividing lawmakers who are normally close allies.
The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance is among those backing Rozzi’s effort.
“All victims of childhood sexual abuse should be afforded an opportunity for justice,” wrote Angela Liddle, the group’s CEO, in a memo to lawmakers.
Lifting the time limit on criminal charges won’t just force the church to confront its old sins, Rozzi said. Other churches and youth groups will be on the hook, as well.
Still, Rozzi said, the strongest resistance seems to be coming from the church or its supporters.
Rozzi’s fellow Democrat, Rep. Bryan Barbin, also wants to change the proposal – but from a different direction. He said the state should allows victims to sue state and local agencies for negligence in covering up crimes or protecting child predators.
School districts and state agencies are now immune to lawsuits – a protection that Penn State didn’t have as a state-funded but independent university.
The state’s flagship university has paid close to $93 million to 32 sex abuse victims of Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach, according to budget documents.
Barbin said he also plans to propose safeguards to ensure that old abuse claims have merit. Those include requiring victims obtain “certificates of merit” from mental health counselors. He may also propose a requirement that victims demonstrate that they sought counseling before age 30, if filing a claim as an older adult.
Rozzi said those suggestions are unnecessary and “muddying it up.”
“He’s making more hoops for victims to go through. It could kill the legislation,” he said.
Rozzi may have reason to be concerned, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice, in Berks County.
Allowing claims against schools and government agencies might force lawmakers who would otherwise reflexively support the bill to take a longer look, she said.
Rozzi said a similar amendment derailed a Colorado effort to allow victims of old sex crimes to file lawsuits. Catholic lobbyists there pushed lawmakers to drop immunity protections for schools and government entities, he said.
Barbin said he’s not trying to torpedo the proposal, and he’s not working just to advance the cause of the church. Barbin said he’s talked to people on all sides of the issue, including attorneys from the Catholic Conference.
Lifting the immunity for schools and government agencies is important, he said, because victims shouldn’t be treated differently depending on where a predator worked.
“I can’t worry about what Mark (Rozzi) thinks,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out what is the best thing to do to protect the most people.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference doesn’t oppose getting rid of the statute of limitations, said a spokeswoman, but giving new life to old cases is another matter.
“We are concerned about potential amendments that would retroactively nullify the civil statute of limitations that could lead to the closure of parishes, schools, and ministries of today’s Catholics, who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago,” said Amy B. Hill, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Conference.
In Delaware, a similar retroactive law led to lawsuits against more than half of the parishes in the state, she said. Those cases were settled as part of an agreement between the Wilmington Diocese and 124 victims.
The settlement – which included stipulations for significant changes to improve child safety in the diocese – was worth $77 million, according to the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. Survivors received $75,000 to $3 million, depending on severity of the abuse.
Access to justice
Other advocates said any progress to stretch out the statute of limitations is welcome, as long as the debate doesn’t completely derail the legislation.
Palm, of the Center for Children’s Justice, said removing the limit for future cases “is an important step forward.”
“It is worth recognizing the big deal it is to say, in the future, prosecutors and victims will not be denied an important tool to achieve justice, healing and promote public safety,” she said.
But David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said removing a “window” on when charges may be pursued ensures that “sometimes, even decades later, wrongdoers may be held responsible for endangering kids, hiding predators, and deceiving parents.”
“Bishops pretend clergy sex crimes and cover-ups are somehow ancient history. They aren’t,” he said. “The three most important and chilling words in the Altoona grand jury report are these: ‘Nothing has changed.’”
State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County, said victims of sex abuse in his area should get the same access to justice as those in Delaware.
About 300 people have called an attorney general’s hotline to report they are victims of sex crimes committed by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Burns said three victims of sex abuse in the diocese have approached him but insisted that they won’t alert authorities unless the law is changed.
“Do we want victims in the shadows?” he asked.
Abuse has ruined lives, he said. Victims have tumbled into alcoholism and drug addiction. Some may have been reluctant to engage in normal relationships because of the abuse.
In some cases, he said, victims committed suicide.
“It’s mind numbing the chaos this has caused,” he said.