Catholic Priest Sexual Abuse Report: Why States Need to Change Statute of Limitations Laws
By Public Safety
Dr. Michael Pittaro
September 7, 2018
On August 14, 2018, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro publicly addressed the comprehensive findings of a much-anticipated, two-year statewide grand jury investigation uncovering the sexual abuse of children by predatory Catholic priests.
This nearly 900-page report reveals sexual abuses involving children under the age of 18 and includes graphically detailed victims’ accounts in dioceses throughout Pennsylvania. It also reveals the systemic cover up—which spans decades—by senior church leaders in Pennsylvania all the way up to the Vatican, thus prompting a response by the Pope.
[Related: Addressing the Lack of Research on Male Childhood Sexual Abuse]
While the report found that 1,000 children were victimized by predator Catholic priests, the true figure is estimated to be much higher, well into the thousands. Despite the horrendous and pervasive nature of these crimes, very few of the perpetrators can be held criminally or civilly liable due to the statute of limitations on sex crimes.
What the Report Found
This latest grand jury investigation was initiated after previous investigations in Pennsylvania found sexual abuse within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The investigation was expanded statewide to include the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton. Highlights from the report include:
301 Catholic priests were identified as predator priests who sexually abused children while serving in active ministry in the church.
Detailed accounts of more than 1,000 children victimized sexually by predator priests, with the grand jury noting it believed the actual number of victims to be in the “thousands.”
Senior officials including bishops, monsignors, and other high-ranking church officials knew about the abuse committed by priests, but routinely covered it up to avoid scandal, criminal charges against priests, and civil monetary damages to the dioceses.
Catholic priests committed acts of sexual abuse upon children and were routinely transferred to other parishes – while parishioners were left unaware of sexual predators in their midst.
One of the accused Catholic priests from my community (Easton, Pennsylvania) was transferred to Disney World in Orlando, Florida after being accused of sexually abusing three young boys. With a reference from a church monsignor, the accused priest was relocated and hired by Disney. This is just one example of hundreds involving the transferring of priests from one location to another after being accused of sexually abusing children, both girls and boys.
Statute of Limitations Laws
The website FindLaw provides a simplified definition of statute of limitations laws. In short, they are essentially a type of federal or state law that restricts the time within which legal proceedings can be brought against an accused person. The law forbids prosecutors from charging the accused with a crime if it was committed more than a specified number of years ago. This legal concept dates back to early Roman law and applies to both civil and criminal actions. The general purpose and intent of these laws is to make sure that the evidence (physical and eyewitness) has not deteriorated with the passage of time.
Changing Statute of Limitations Laws
One of the grand jury’s recommendations, supported by the Pennsylvania Attorney General, is that the statute of limitations laws should be changed, and I wholeheartedly concur. We are doing crime victims a disservice by not holding the accused criminally and civilly accountable for their actions. The accused should be entitled to a jury trial, like any other defendant, if they contest the criminal charges filed against them through a submission of a “not guilty” plea.
Statute of limitations laws are enacted by the legislature, which can either extend or reduce specified time limits, subject to certain legal restrictions. The current law in Pennsylvania permits victims to come forward until age 50. Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Rozzi, a victim of sexual abuse by a priest when he was 12 years old, has publicly voiced his concerns that the legislature must extend the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases.
The grand jury recommended to the Pennsylvania legislature that it not continue the practice of shielding child sexual predators by enabling the statute of limitations defense. The grand jury emphasized that it has received testimony from victims who are now in their 50s and some who are well into their 80s, but cannot pursue criminal or civil charges against the alleged perpetrators.
Modifying Civil Laws
There is widespread support for changing statute of limitations laws. Most states have either abolished or extended the statutes of limitations for the criminal prosecution of child sex abuse cases. Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Minnesota have already restored victims’ expired rights to file civil suits; therefore, the timing is ideal for Pennsylvania to follow suit by addressing the grand jury’s recommendations.
In addition to modifying the criminal statute of limitations law, the Pennsylvania grand jury also recommended creating what they referred to as a “civil window” law, which would permit older victims to file civil suits against the diocese for damages that fall under the realm of civil law including depression, anxiety, nightmares, shame, and problems in school, intimacy and relationships that were outcomes of the abuse. The civil suits have mostly claimed that the diocese knew of the dangerous propensities and tendencies of some Catholic priests as child molesters, sexual harassers, and sexual abusers before they (the plaintiffs) became the victims of lewd acts, but the diocese did nothing to warn or protect them.
The current Pennsylvania civil law only provides a window of 12 years for child sex-abuse victims to sue once they turn 18; therefore, age 30 is the maximum age in which victims can file a lawsuit from the alleged abuse that took place when they were minors. Most of the victims within the investigative report cannot sue because the statute of limitations has expired. The grand jury report noted that many victims have suffered long-term emotional, physical, sexual, and financial damage after turning to alcohol and substance abuse to repress the victimization they had incurred at the hands of predator priests.
While it is frustrating that the majority of accused Catholic priests cannot be prosecuted under existing law in Pennsylvania, there may be justice for some victims. The report names some priests who are accused of offenses that likely fall within the statute of limitations so they may be brought to trial. Furthermore, upon disclosing the report’s findings, additional cases are being brought to the attention of the attorney general’s office.
About the Author: Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.