Pushing the Limit: Examining the Legislative Battle over the Statute of Limitations in Child Sex Abuse Cases

By Tara Murtha
Philadelphia Weekly
February 8, 2012

As 78-year-old state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D-Philadelphia) began to speak to a crowd gathered in the rotunda of the capitol in Harrisburg at a public meeting in November, her voice wavered and shook, belying her decades of experience in public speaking as a polished politician, Baptist minister and radio DJ.

Shaky, Bishop revealed a secret she had held inside for six decades. "I discovered someone in the bed with me. [He was] doing a little more than feeling and touching," she told the hushed audience, recalling the night when her stepfather first raped her.

Bishop, who was 12 at the time, says that when she awoke to find her stepfather in her bed, she "didn't know how to react. I was afraid. There was fear. Fear in what my sisters, if they awakened, would think. Fear if I told my mother what she would say. Fear if my grandfather found out, he would have taken a shotgun and killed somebody and went to jail."

"So I lived with that fear," and the secret, "all these years." Even as a minister listening to survivors, who at 35, 40 years old were revealing their own childhood sex abuse, Bishop remained silent about her own. She never even told her husband.

But here, surrounded by child abuse survivors and in the shock and turmoil of allegations against former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, Bishop says she was moved to share her story.

"I was standing in front of people with stories that people may not have believed," she says of that moment. "I had not planned to talk, to tell them about my experience, but when I saw them … I could not walk away from that without letting them know I understood, I've been through it, and that we were going to do everything we could do for them."

What she means is: She's not going to give up on abolishing the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, because she knows how and why it can take a long time, a lifetime even, to come forward about having been abused. Bishop says that the burden she sees in the men she counsels does not expire, so the time period when survivors can come forward and press charges shouldn't expire, either. She says it's not about the money that could be won in a civil suit, but it helps, because survivors often need, and deserve, therapy and treatment.

"They need as much help as they can get to overcome that horrible experience and try to live a normal life," says Bishop. "They don't even start talking about it until they are 30, or 40, or 50 years old."

Last February, Bishop introduced House Bill 832, a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of children in Pennsylvania. Current Pennsylvania statutes give survivors up until the age of 50 to file a criminal suit and until 30 to file a civil suit against their abusers. HB 832 would abolish the age limit altogether.

Bishop introduced the bill alongside Rep. Mike McGeehan's HB 878, which would install a two-year "window," a temporary time period in which survivors who otherwise aged out of the statute of limitation (SOL) could still file civil suits.

Sometimes called the "look-back window," states around the country, including Delaware, have implemented the windows in the wake of child sex abuse scandals.

SOL reformists see window legislation as a tool to identify predators.

Indeed, after California passed a one-year window legislation in 2002, about 1,000 survivors came forward, and the names of more than 300 alleged perpetrators were identified, according to constitutional law expert and omnipresent SOL reform advocate Marci Hamilton, of Bucks County. Of the suits filed, about 850 were relevant to the Catholic Church.

The California experiment yielded interesting results: While it confirmed that indeed many survivors wait decades to come forward, it also sparked a backlash against SOL reform that was spearheaded, insiders say, by the Catholic Church.

In response, Church lobbyists across the country have repeatedly framed SOL reform as both a money-grab and as evidence of anti-Catholic bias.

Advocates in Harrisburg say the battle of statute of limitation reform is much bigger, and uglier, than Republicans versus Democrats. It boils down to church versus state.

Now, between the upcoming trial against Philadelphia priests accused of child sex abuse, the Penn State scandal and an administration that just declared 2012 the "Year of the Bible" in Pennsylvania, that battle has never been more intense and line has never been more blurry.

The Echo Chambers

Pennsylvania legislators have been introducing bills to reform the statute of limitation for years, mostly to no avail.

Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh/Monroe/Northhampton) has introduced bills every year since at least 2005. According to her office, none has ever made it on the agenda or to a public hearing. In 2007, former Rep. Lisa Bennington (D-Allegheny) introduced HB 1137, an SOL bill known as the Child Victim's Act of Pennsylvania. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee in May of that year, where it died of neglect, along with the rest. Sickened by the behind-the-scene politicking over SOL reform, Bennington deserted Harrisburg after only two years to go back to the relatively pleasant industry of divorce mediation.

After introducing the legislation for three consecutive years, Bishop's HB 832 has been stalled, along with McGeehan's HB 878, gathering dust on the not-to-do list of the House Judiciary Committee for almost a year.

Advocates point to Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) and Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks), the majority and minority chairs of the Judiciary Committee, respectively, as roadblocks. "I spoke to bills 878 and 832 when they were introduced by McGeehan and Bishop," says Sister Maureen Turlish, a South Philly-born-and-raised Catholic nun and staunch SOL advocate who played a key role in Delaware SOL reform. "The problem seems to be that the House Chair Ron Marsico … won't let them into discussion."

Even McGeehan's office says they've been frozen out by Marsico.

"We have, together with Rep. Bishop, written both Marsico and minority chairman Thomas R. Caltagirone (D-Berks) several times asking them to move the bills, we have no written response back to date," says a spokesperson from McGeehan's office. "This SOL issue has been vetted in one form of another for many years … and we just feel that it's time to have a hearing. If there are arguments, then let them come out in the hearing. But at least give the advocates of the bill the opportunity to get it out there and give victims the chance to present their point of view."

Among grassroots organizations advocating for reform, Marsico's become a villain. "Our group has pounded him quite steadily since the fall to try to get these bills put on the agenda," says Maureen Martinez, co-founder of Justice4PAKids, an activist organization put together last year explicitly to advocate for SOL reform and child sex abuse education in Pa. In a letter to Hamilton, Marsico explained his point of view. It read in part, "What may seem to be a prudent response in the wake of a well-publicized criminal allegation may have implications that undermine other important values for which our Commonwealth stands."

Martinez isn't buying it. "We've also talked to a lot of judiciary committee members and they say there's nothing they can do. He's completely road-blocking the bills by not even putting them on the agenda. That's just not right. We live in a democracy and one man has so much control that he's the only guy who sets the agenda?"

What advocates really think though, is that the Catholic Church, via the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, is setting the agenda.

Former Rep. Bennington says that after her brief run through the SOL spin cycle, she only has two words to say about the debacle: "Catholic Conference."

Faithful Lobbyists

A report issued last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that on a national level, the amount of money religious lobbyists spend to influence policy has increased steadily and dramatically in the last few decades.

The lobbying arm of the Catholic Church is the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania's Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. Though it is not possible to know exactly how much money the PA Catholic Conference has spent lobbying against SOL reform in the state, the report reveals that in 2009, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spent $26,662,111 influencing national policy, second only to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The USCCB disputes the report's claims.

Though the PA Catholic Conference, for the most part, stays publicly quiet on the matter of statue of limitation—choosing instead to tweet and post newsletters focusing on school vouchers, abortion and contraception—advocates report they've encountered their representatives all over Harrisburg, "stealthily" campaigning against reform.

"[Reform] would mean implicating bishops and cardinals and monsignors, and that's why they're fighting so viciously over this, and it is vicious," says Tammy Lerner, vice president of The Foundation to Abolish Sex Abuse. Lerner says she met with the Pa. Catholic Conference across the table at one point.

"There's no talking with them, the answers they will give you are canned from their lawyers, they don't waver off it ... and they are not willing to take any responsibility." A sex-abuse survivor who got involved with the cause in 2001, Lerner says negotiating SOL reform back then was like playing a game of "whac-a-mole. You had to keep squashing down the objections to it … at every turn there was a new strategy to try to kill it, or try to gut it."

PA Catholic Conference spokesperson Amy Hill declined to discuss SOL reform with PW, saying it was a "sensitive issue." However, Hill emailed a prepared statement, which reads in part: "Over the years Pennsylvania increased the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases from age 20 to 50 for criminal prosecutions and age 20 to 30 for civil actions. The PCC did not oppose these bills. However, the Catholic Church does not support a retroactive suspension of civil statutes of limitations creating a 'window' in cases involving the sexual abuse of minors from many years ago.

"Opening a 'window' on the statute of limitations for damages claims against non-perpetrators is flawed because statutes of limitations exist to ensure a just verdict can be reached. Over time, memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased. The passage of time makes it nearly impossible for a Church or any other organization to defend itself against allegations from 30, 40 and 50 years ago. For similar reasons we do not support the proposal to abolish the statute of limitations in both criminal and civil cases of childhood sexual abuse from this point forward."

In the John Jay study on clergy and sex abuse commissioned by the U.S. Bishops, the writers went to great lengths to emphasize that the vast majority of sex abuse by the clergy was in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. So, while on one hand, the church admits there are many survivors abused in this era, they argue the abuse would be impossible to prove in court. Turlish says that point is moot. "I defend anyone's right to due process, but it's the plaintiff's responsibility in the civil case to provide proof. So if the people are all dead, if there are no records ... the case won't go any place."

While the statement doesn't mention the fear of financial cost of settling lawsuits, that is the No. 1 argument advocates say they have heard from Catholic Conference lobbyists on the hill.

According to the John Jay report, the sex-abuse related costs totaled $573 million, with $219 million covered by insurance companies.

Coming Out

In September 2005, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office published the 423-page grand jury report outlining claims of sexual abuse and an institutional cover-up in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The allegations included a priest who allegedly impregnated an 11-year-old girl through rape, then took her to get an abortion; a boy awoke in a priest's bed, dazed from intoxication, to find one priest sucking on his penis while three more watched and masturbated; a teenage girl, immobilized by traction in a hospital bed, molested by a priest until she rang the bell for a nurse. In all, the report named 62 priests as alleged abusers. But none of them could be charged due to the statute of limitations.

"The abuser priests, by choosing children as targets and trafficking on their trust, were able to prevent or delay reports of their sexual assaults, to the point where applicable statutes of limitations expired," wrote the grand jury. "And Archdiocese officials, by burying those reports … managed to outlast any statutes of limitation. As a result, these priests and officials will necessarily escape criminal prosecution. We surely would have charged them if we could have done so."

The 2005 grand jury's top-priority recommendation was: "Abolish the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against children, as several other states have already done."

The Archdiocese fired back in a 76-page response to the report issued through their longtime attorneys of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young. In it, the church called the grand jury report a project of "exceptional hostility driven by fixed opinions, unbridled cage rattling and insidious pre-judgments about the Catholic Church" and a "vile, mean-spirited diatribe against the Church and the Archdiocese."

Charlie Gallagher, lead prosecutor on the 2005 report, recalls how the church came out swinging against the efforts to reform SOLs. "The Catholic Church and the insurance lobbyists fought against this all through 2006," says Gallagher, who worked closely with newly minted City Councilman Dennis O'Brien, then a legislator in Harrisburg championing SOL reform.

They managed to extend the criminal statute of limitation to age 50.

"It was one of the heaviest-lifting things I ever did," says O'Brien. "And I did a lot of stuff." But it still has not, as the grand jury recommended in 2005, been abolished.

Lerner, 41, learned about the SOL in 1998 when she and her cousin (also a victim) went to the D.A. in Union County, Pa., to file charges against a family member they say raped them for years, starting when Lerner was 4 years old.

"We thought he was going to be arrested after we came forward because he admitted he raped us," she says. "[But] he wasn't. That's when we found out what the SOLs were."

He is free, but in many ways, she is not.

"I just saw him over Thanksgiving, came face to face with him, and didn't know what to do … It's a horrible, horrible feeling to know that you have the power within you to be able to tell, you have the knowledge to be able to prevent other children's lives from being ruined and the law in Pennsylvania says I'm not allowed to. I'm not allowed to help other kids to not get raped."

As for the Catholic Church, Lerner says: "They keep saying things are changing but they're not changing. The second grand jury report says they're still harboring these criminals, still protecting them."

Last February, District Attorney Seth Williams issued a second grand jury report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

In the 2005 report, Edward Avery was accused of abusing a 12-year-old boy in the late 1970s while an assistant pastor at St. Philip Neri in Pennsburg. After undergoing a psychological evaluation at St. John Vianney Hospital—a facility often scapegoated for recommending molester priests return to work, that it also owned by the Philadelphia Archdiocese—Avery resigned as pastor of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and was placed on health leave for four months before being re-assigned as chaplain at Nazareth Hospital. Ten years later, in 2003, he was placed on administrative leave. He is charged with raping a boy referred to in the report as "Billy," sometime between 1998 and 2000, when the boy was between 10 and 12 years old. Father Charles Engelhardt, 64, and teacher Bernard Shero, 47, face charges of raping the same boy.

Blood Bath: Church vs. State

When Archbishop Cardinal Justin Rigali retired from The Philadelphia Archdiocese last year, Pope Benedict XVI called on Rev. Charles Chaput, who served as the archbishop of Denver since 1997, to replace him. While most Philadelphians hadn't heard of Reverend Chaput, SOL reform advocates had—and they weren't happy to hear he was moving East.

Though admirers credit Chaput with handling sensitive investigations such as the one into the Legionaries of Christ, Chaput is also credited with squashing SOL reform in Denver.

"Oh we knew," says Lerner. "I worked with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and we both were very much aware of what was going on in Denver, what he did, the tactics he employed out there. It really didn't shock me when they sent him here to Philadelphia. It was a smart move on their part."

As the Colorado Independent put it in a headline at the time, "Penn. Lawmakers Seeking to Bolster Sex Abuse Laws Will Have to Outmaneauver Chaput: Archbishop defeated similar efforts in Colorado with hardball high-end lobbying and PR campaigns."

The debacle in Denver is well-documented.

"Denver Bishop Charles J Chaput succeeded in defeating legislative reform in Colorado through shameless (and expensive) antics," wrote Marci Hamilton in Justice Denied, a primer on statute of limitation reform, years before knowing Chaput would be cherry-picked to deal with the crisis in Philadelphia. Hamilton, who consulted on the 2005 Grand Jury report, called what went down in Denver one of the "bloodiest battles" in SOL reform yet.

Chaput's hallmark is calling on Catholics to more directly participate in politics.

In his book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Chaput meditates at length on the relationship between church and state.

"The one thing the 'establishment clause' cannot mean," writes Chaput, "is for religious believers and communities to be silent in public affairs."

In the book, Chaput rails against secularism. "Secularism as a cult—the kind of rigid separationism where the state treats religion as a scary and unstable guest—hollows out the core of what it means to be human."

He concludes, "Of course, turnabout is fair play. Believers can push back."

Chaput also writes about the anti-Catholic bias that he sees as "a kind of background radiation to daily life."

Charges of anti-Catholic prejudice were key to the Denver strategy, which reportedly included hiring a boutique PR firm, writing and distributing sermons for pastors to read from the pulpit and asking churchgoers to fill out postcards with messages on them to be mailed to legislators.

Gwyn Green was the sponsor of legislation that would have lifted the statute of limitation and created a window. "The Archdiocese fought it quite a bit," says Green, 73, on the phone from her home in Golden, Colorado. "Actually the Catholic Conference, and then it seems that they reached the insurance companies who said to the members of the legislature, 'If you pass this legislation, we will no longer insure your public schools' so I lost the votes to pass that."

The main message went roughly like this: Window legislation is anti-Catholic bias unless a companion bill opens a window on possible lawsuits against public schools.

"The information I got was that the Catholic Conference brought in national lobbyists and as I understand it, a great deal of money was being spent to defeat the bill, which they were successful at," says Green. "Every week in the Denver Catholic Register, Joan Fitz-Gerald, the president of the Senate and I were vilified … They smeared our reputation and with many people it ruined our reputations, and that continues to this day."

Green says she and Sen. Fitz-Gerald were called names. "Both of us are very Catholic and accused of being anti-Catholic, of trying to destroy the church, all that nonsense."

The experience changed Green, who retired for health reasons in 2009 and now goes to an Episcopalian church. Green says the idea that SOL reform is an attack on the Catholic Church is ridiculous. "When I ran this legislation, I wasn't even thinking of the Catholic Church, I was thinking of children."

Green says that when she and her colleagues heard Chaput was heading here, they felt "relief for Denver. And … concern for Philadelphia."

Scandals Change Laws

Whatever muscle Archbishop Chaput may or may not bring to the fight against SOL reform in Pennsylvania, SOL reformists recently got an unexpected push for their cause, too: the Penn State scandal.

"A state chooses a new limit, and then and a new horrible case becomes known, and the state says, 'we have to move it again,'" says Hamilton. "We have been liberalizing SOL step by step across the country in virtually every state."

"Step-by-step" really means "scandal-by-scandal."

"It's horrible to say, it's a horrible experience for those children, and it's horrible for Penn State which had a stellar reputation, but good things come from bad things," says Rep. Bishop. "I don't think we ever would be having this conversation [if the Penn State scandal hadn't happened.] I know that I never would have talked about it."

After the scandal broke, with the eyes of the nation on Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett assembled the Task Force for Child Protection, an 11-member coalition tasked with combing through Pennsylvania laws related to child sex abuse. "This task force has a tremendously important job," Corbett said at the time. "It will provide input to help us strengthen state laws and ensure every Pennsylvania child receives the protection from harm they deserve."

Statute of limitation, however, is not on the Task Force agenda.

Certainly, an analysis is needed: According to the Department of Health and Human Services 2010 Child Maltreatment Report, Pennsylvania is a statistical outlier in the investigation and determination of child abuse. We investigate child abuse 8.3 per 1,000 children versus 40.3 per 1,000 children nationally, and then we determine a child is a victim of child abuse 1.4 per 1,000 children versus 9.3 per 1,000 nationally.

The low numbers are not, as evident by scandals that made Pennsylvania look like the poster state for child sex abuse last year, due to lower incidence than elsewhere.

But there's good news. Bishop says that for the first time, she participated in a real conversation in Harrisburg about SOL reform. She says that two weeks ago she sat down with both Rep. Marsico and Rep. Caltagirone.

"I don't know if my bill per se will move, but I'll tell you this, it's moving enough that there's been a meeting on it, there's been talk on it … which I've never had before. It is now in Chairman Marsico's committee, it was always in Democratic committee chairman Thomas Caltagirone and he wanted no discussion on it, none whatsoever, I have had one discussion with [Marsico], he didn't say yes or no."

Rep. Caltagirone declined to comment.

As for Church's argument that pursuing statute of limitation reform is anti-Catholic, Pennsylvania's scandals have pretty much defanged that theory. "The fact that the Penn State scandal and now [the Conlin case] have also hit the fan, in a sense, that can effectively defuse the accusation that, 'Oh this anti-Catholic,'" says Sister Maureen Turlish.

"The one thing they didn't count on," says Lerner, "was the Penn State scandal and the Syracuse scandal, and on people getting educated on the issue."

Just in the last few days, insiders are bussing the movement on current bills, if anything, will likely be to extend the civil statute of limitations from age 30 to age 50. Which is a start.

But the window, for now that remains shut, with survivors like Rep. Bishop who took decades to speak out, locked out of the courthouse, looking in.


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