Church abuse scandal: Man campaigns for statute of limitation reform

By Dutch Godshalk
Times Herald
August 12, 2018

Mike McDonnell, seen here speaking during a press conference, said he was a parishioner of St. Titus Parish in East Norriton Township at the time of the abuse.

Mike McDonnell had no lawful course of action because of the statute of limitations. He’ is working to eliminate the statute of limitations when it comes to child sex abuse.

Mike McDonnell is on a “personal vendetta” against the Catholic church.

It’s a battle he’s been fighting his entire life. He waged it in 2007, when he was 38 years old, but the fight truly started when he was a sixth grader at St. Titus Parish in East Norriton Township. That’s when McDonnell alleges he was sexually abused by two parish priests, Francis X. Trauger and John P. Schmeer. He said the abuse lasted two years – from 1981 to 1983.

(Trauger was defrocked by the Catholic Church and removed from ministry in 2003. Schmeer was removed from ministry in 2012.)

McDonnell said the abuse took place in hotel rooms and rectories and sacristies. It took place during golf trips and fishing trips. It involved situations that, to an outside observer, may have seemed innocent, even enriching. But no matter the venue or the wholesome pretense, these situations often devolved into “sick and twisted” acts of sexual and psychological torture, McDonnell said.

McDonnell was 11 years old when the abuse began, and it would be more than 20 years before he would fully face what happened to him. For decades, he didn’t know how to confront his abuse, didn’t know how to explain it to himself or anyone else. So he didn’t.

For a child, the shock of sexual trauma “sets in and literally shuts you off, shuts off a certain part of your brain at that age, shuts you down,” McDonnell said during a recent interview. “I continued on for a number of years, trying to prove to everybody that everything was good in my life. I had excellent jobs and made great money, but inside I was a volcano getting ready to explode.”

McDonnell said he spent decades “hiding behind a bottle,” numbing himself with drugs and alcohol. “For years, I had suppressed and depressed everything.” It took the crumbling of his second marriage, and a real effort at sobriety, before he could fully confront his trauma.

“In 2005 my second marriage broke up. Lost my job. Lost the house. It’s a side effect. It’s the collateral damage of not being able to truly deal with reality,” he explained. “I couldn’t function to the capacity that i used to be able to function.”

In 2006, not long after entering drug and alcohol recovery, where he became sober for the first time since he was 16, McDonnell decided to finally seek retribution. He sought to hold the Catholic church accountable for the alleged sins of its priests.

But when he met with an attorney, McDonnell was told “the statute of limitations had expired” on taking action against his abusers. There was nothing he could do.

At the time Mike McDonnell met with an attorney, in 2006, victims of child sex abuse in Pennsylvania had until age 30 to pursue a civil suit or file criminal charges against their abusers. He’d missed the window by years.

Two years later, in 2008, state lawmakers upped the statute of limitations to age 50 for criminal charges. Unfortunately, victims who had already aged out of the statute – victims like McDonnell – didn’t benefit from the change.

“When the statute of limitations was extended from 30 to 50 for criminal, if you were over 30 by the effective date, you were out of luck,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, an organization promoting justice for child abuse and neglect. “Once a criminal statute of limitations expires, it’s over. You cannot revive it. You can’t do anything.”

Being over 30 by the effective date of the extension, McDonnell still had no lawful course of action. Since then, he’s insisted there should be no statute of limitations when it comes to child sex abuse. Putting a time limit on that sort of trauma is unreasonable, he said.

“Ask an 11-year-old what a statute of limitations even is, and when he or she would like to share their story,” McDonnell said. “I was 35 when I shared my story.”

He’s not alone in this belief. Marci Hamilton said the most ideal reform to the statute of limitations on child sex abuse would be to do away with it altogether. She calls it The Guam Model: “Guam basically now has said there is no statute of limitations, backwards or forwards, criminal or civil. No one in the [U.S.] has done that yet.”

However, a bill introduced this year by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, did attempt to take a step forward. While not proposing an elimination of the statute of limitations, the bill introduced the concept of a temporary “lookback window” for civil claims. This would have given victims who aged out of the statute – victims like McDonnell – a brief opportunity to pursue legal action.

The bill had “a very modest [lookback] window, it’s a one-year window,” explained Hamilton, who worked on the bill. “So Pennsylvania would still be behind the curve.”

This and similar bills have failed on the floor several times over recent years, according to a 2018 report by Child USA: “There have been many efforts in the state to extend or eliminate [statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse] and to pass a window, but to date they have not been successful.”

These efforts failed “despite the fact that Pennsylvania has generated the most grand jury reports on child sex abuse in the country,” Hamilton said.

The report on Pennsylvania’s most recent grand jury investigation has been hanging in limbo more than a month, with a redacted version of the report now slated for release on Aug. 14. It is said to identify more than 300 priests accused of sexual misconduct.

The investigation, which looked into allegations of sexual assault and cover-ups in six Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania – except for Altoona and Philadelphia, which were already the subjects of two previous grand jury investigations – has been embattled since the end of June.

With new updates on the release of the report coming every week, the ramifications of the investigation are already percolating. At the beginning of August, the Diocese of Harrisburg released a growing list of 72 clergy and seminarians accused of sexual misconduct. The Diocese of Erie had already released a list of 67 individuals.

For those who are pushing for statute of limitations reform, this flurry of developments is cause for cautious optimism. The last time reform came—when lawmakers increased the statute from age 30 to 50 for criminal charges in 2008 -- it came on the heels of the 2005 grand jury report, the subject of which was the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

According to Marci Hamilton, “There’s no question that [reform] was directly related to the 2005 grand jury report.” She and others hope similar reform comes in the wake of the current report.

Whenever that reform comes, and if a lookback window comes with it, Mike McDonnell said he’ll be ready and waiting to seize his opportunity. Until that day, he’s going to continue sharing his story. He’s going to remain another thorn in the side of the Catholic Church.

“I want them to see that I have not gone away,” McDonnell said. “They obviously see that within the media. They know. But I want them to know I’m not done with this. I’m going to make sure -- somehow, some way -- I will hold you guys accountable.”

McDonnell stressed that this isn’t just a church issue. Good statute of limitations reform can mean a shot at justice for childhood sexual abuse victims across the board: “My hope is that we get something on the books so that they don’t have to go through what I went through, that they will have a legal recourse when they disclose it.”

“There’s a large portion of my life that is damaged goods,” he added. “Statute of limitations reform can repair the lives of those that have been shattered. It gives us an opportunity to restore what was lost. There are many cases of people having suffered from family loss, job loss, separations, mental health issues, addiction issues—or a combination of all of them.


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