Will Clergy Sex Abuse Allegations Spur Change in Statute-of-Limitation Laws?

Since the Pennsylvania report, several other states have launched investigations into the Catholic Church. But in some of them, laws prevent many child victims from seeking legal justice.
by | September 18, 2018
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro holds hands with Judy Deaven, who says her son was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest. (AP/Matt Rourke)

This summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury released an explosive report, accusing more than 300 Catholic priests in the state of sexually abusing 1,000 children over seven decades. Despite the number of accused, only two priests reportedly can face criminal prosecution.

Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations only allows victims of child sex abuse to file criminal lawsuits until they reach the age of 50. Civil cases can be filed until the victim is 30 years old.

The Pennsylvania report has prompted attorneys general in at least six states -- Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York -- to review or investigate clergy sex abuse cases. But the concern is not just with the Catholic Church. Recent events have brought attention to sexual abuse, assault and harassment in Boy Scouts of America, USA Gymnastics, Hollywood and the halls of government.

Amid this national conversation, a growing number of lawmakers want to expand the window that victims of child sex abuse have to file civil and criminal lawsuits. Some want to eliminate these time limits altogether. If history is any indication, it will likely be an uphill battle.

The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill in 2017 that would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations and raise the cutoff age to file a civil lawsuit to 50. That measure has stalled in the House. State Rep. Mark Rozzi, who describes the Senate bill as weak, introduced his own bill that would eliminate criminal and civil statutes of limitations as well as provide a two-year window from the day the law goes into effect for victims to sue for past abuse. Members of the Senate and House disagree over whether the retroactive window would be unconstitutional.

In New York, where child victims have until age 23 to file civil and criminal lawsuits, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal is pushing the Child Victims Act, which would raise the ages to 50 and 28, respectively. Her bill would also create a one-year retroactive window. The Child Victims Act passed the Assembly in May, but the Senate's Republican leaders have blocked the measure from making it to the floor for a vote.

Rosenthal believes the growing understanding of the issue will help her legislation pass.

"We've seen Republicans who were [opposed to] the bill for years. After that Pennsylvania report, they turned 180 degrees and said 'Now I support it,'" Rosenthal says. "None of the facts changed in New York. They just saw their constituents were rising up."

Measures to change statutes of limitations for child sex abuse have faced challenges for years.

Since 2010, New Jersey state Sen. Joe Vitale has pushed a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for certain civil child sex-abuse offenses; it would also expand the definition of defendants who can be liable for such offenses. The measure previously stalled by a lack of votes, but Vitale has pledged to keep fighting for it. (New Jersey removed the criminal statute of limitations in 2001.)

Advocates like Mark Crawford say the key to providing justice to all victims is a retroactive window. Any legislation that doesn't include a retroactive option would be a "grave injustice," he says.

Crawford, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is all too familiar with the legal hurdles that statute of limitations present. He is a victim of clergy abuse himself. He says he did not fully realize his trauma until 1996 when he was 35 years old. By then, the statute of limitations on his case had expired.

Crawford argues that just as corporate businesses can be liable for past infractions that caused public harm, the same principle should apply to the church.

"We have an institution that protected itself over the need to protect children," he says. "[The church] never wants to go back, but it was complicit as an entity, and there is a moral obligation to fix this."

The Catholic community has mixed views on eliminating statutes of limitations, though lobbying groups for the organizations have largely fought against the bills.

Patrick Brannigan of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, a public policy arm for the church, says his group will cooperate to address this issue and would be “willing to do” a retroactive window -- but only for individual abusers. 

Tyler McClay, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, argues that the accused may not receive fair legal treatment as memories fade and evidence disappears from past cases.

"These are very difficult cases to defend even if all the witnesses are alive," he says. "I think the concern with the window bills is getting into the due process. ... I think the dioceses are committed to trying make it right for anyone who has a substantiated claim to try and offer them assistance."

The potential cost of retroactive legal action is also a concern among the church.

Dennis Poust, spokesperson for the New York State Catholic Conference, worries that the financial impact of opening up old cases “will trickle down to the people who rely on the Church for social services or education," he wrote in an email to Governing. “Despite people’s perceptions, the Church is not flush with money, especially upstate."

Of the survivors who report their abuse, their average age is 52, according to a study conducted in Germany. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a North Carolina-based clinical psychologist who has treated sexual abuse victims for decades and written extensively on clergy abuse, has mixed views on the value of lawsuits when it comes to a survivor's healing process. She says lawsuits can bring some relief for victims, but that relief can be limited. Sexual abuse “affects every aspect of the person’s functioning,” she says, adding that in addition to long-term problems with substance abuse, intimacy and self-esteem, studies also show abuse victims tend to have higher rates of physical illness.

Lawsuits can't heal everything, but "it's about fairness," says Marci Hamilton, a lawyer and the CEO of Child USA, a think tank dedicated to stopping various types of child abuse.

According to Child USA, Delaware is a model for these laws. The state eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for all child sex abuse offenses in 2003 and eliminated the civil statute in 2007. It also created a one-time window from 2007 to 2009 for victims to file retroactive lawsuits.

The country has largely relied on the Catholic Church to oversee itself on this issue, says Hamilton, and it’s time for more government intervention. This year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report is not the first scandal highlighting clergy sex abuse. An investigation published in 2002 by The Boston Globe revealed sexual abuse and systemic cover-ups within the Archdiocese of Boston. It led to criminal charges against several priests.

Mitchell Garabedian is a Boston lawyer who represented some of the victims in those cases. Since that time, he says there has been “a lot of talk and little action” from the Catholic Church. But today, he feels great momentum nationally and hopes the renewed attention will lead to legislative change.