Justice in Sight for Future Sex Abuse Victims

Delco Times [Pennsylvania]
December 1, 2006

For future generations, there is hope for justice. On Wednesday, Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law a package of bills aimed at toughening penalties for pedophiles. Included in the new legislation is a 20-year expansion of the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution.

Now, alleged victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania have until age 50 to file criminal charges against their suspected abusers.

Up until about three years ago, they had to file charges within two years of the alleged abuse and no later than age 18. Around 2003, the statute was expanded to age 30.

The changes in the law are consistent with recommendations made last year by a Philadelphia grand jury convened by Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham in 2002 to investigate clerical sexual abuse.

The grand jury report, released in September 2005, named 63 priests who allegedly abused children as far back as the 1940s -- 43 of whom had connections with Delaware County. All of them escaped prosecution because Pennsylvania's statute of limitations had expired by the time civil authorities became aware of the alleged abuse.

If the laws that Rendell signed Wednesday had been in effect when the alleged abuse investigated by the grand jury had occurred, indictments would have resulted, noted Foundation to Abolish Church Sex Abuse President John Salveson of Radnor, who lobbied for the changes.

Allowingalleged child sexual abuse victims to file charges until age 50 is more consistent with when individuals feel safe enough to come forward about such crimes.

Often adults who sexually exploit children and adolescents swear their victims to secrecy or threaten them outright with harm if they reveal the abuse to others. Unsurprisingly, victims are especially intimidated by men of the cloth who are entrusted with their spiritual well-being.

Victims of child sexual abuse also often feel shame that lasts well into adulthood resulting in self-destructive behavior, even to the point of suicide.

But not all past victims of child sexual abuse kept their mouths shut until adulthood, as evidenced through the Philadelphia grand jury's report on clerical sexual abuse.

The abomination is that officials in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia did not turn these suspected pedophiles over to civil authorities in a timely fashion. In many cases, church hierarchy facilitated suspected pedophiles' access to children by simply transferring these men from parish-to-parish.

One of the most notorious cases was that of the Rev. Joseph P. Gausch, against whom complaints that he sexually abused boys were lodged with the archdiocese as early as 1948. Such complaints followed him throughout his career in parishes in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties-- including one lodged in 1964 while he was assistant pastor at Our Lady of Peace Church in the Milmont Park section of Ridley Township -- until his death in 1999, when he was pastor emeritus at a Philadelphia parish.

The Rev. Thomas J. Durkin was barely ordained when archdiocesan officials were informed that he was allegedly abusing boys. In 1965, he was accused of abusing three boys while assistant pastor at a Bucks County parish.

That did not deter archdiocesan officials from transferring Durkin to Holy Saviour parish in Lower Chichester where, also in 1965, they were notified that he was allegedly abusing two brothers. Did church officials report these accusations to police? No. Instead, they sent Durkin to a psychiatrist, then to Holy Spirit parish in Sharon Hill where, in 2002, a man said he has been abused as a child by Durkin in 1966.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia never did turn Durkin into the police. They did relieve him of his priestly duties in 1968, four years after his ordination. He was finally defrocked in 2005 and, at last report, was living in Hawaii.

With the new law signed by Rendell on Wednesday, archdiocesan officials and anyone else in authority aware of potential child sexual abuse who does not alert police, will be held criminally liable.

Archdiocesan officials claim they have been doing this since 2002 as directed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children.

Sadly, this is too late to alleviate the suffering of adults who have been haunted by their childhood abuse. Salveson has pledged to continue to lobby for civil remedies for their pain.

Indeed the testimonies of these alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse laid the foundation for the expanded criminal statute of limitations. While they cannot benefit from the new law, they should take some comfort in the fact that by coming forward, they have helped put justice within reach of future generations.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.