Pennsylvania is trying to loosen sex abuse laws after scathing report on 300 Catholic priests

"We want future victims to know they will always have the force of the criminal law behind them, no matter how long they live."
August 16, 2018, 8:29pm

One Catholic priest raped a 7-year-old girl while she was in the hospital after getting her tonsils out, then raped her again when she was 13. Another raped an altar boy hundreds of times, reportedly telling him, “This is what all good altar boys do.” Yet another regularly raped five sisters within the same family.

None of those priests — all of whom are named in a stomach-turning report issued Tuesday by a Pennsylvania grand jury on sex abuse in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses — will likely be prosecuted or even be held civilly liable. The crimes took place decades ago, and in Pennsylvania, victims of child sex abuse only have until their 50th birthday to file criminal charges and until their 30th birthday to file civil lawsuits.


“We heard from plenty of victims who are now in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even
one who was 83 years old,” the grand jury wrote in its 1,300-page-plus report, which represents the most extensive government look at sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church and what the grand jury called its “playbook for concealing the truth.”

“We want future victims to know they will always have the force of the criminal law behind them, no matter how long they live,” the grand jury continued in the report. “And we want future child predators to know they should always be looking over their shoulder — no matter how long they live.”

Now, Pennsylvania state lawmakers are set to consider whether to grant the grand jury’s request. Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Dave Reed said that the House will now vote on a proposal to eliminate the state’s statute of limitations for cases that may involve child sexual abuse. Under the bill, people who were abused as children could prosecute their attackers at any age and sue them up until their 50th birthday.

“The crimes reported by the grand jury are horrendous, and the cover-up, even worse. The days of protecting abusers must end,” Reed wrote in a statement posted to his website Tuesday. “It is time for all of us as policymakers, but more importantly, as humans, to stand up against the betrayals of the most vulnerable among us.”

The state Senate already passed the bill unanimously in February 2017, but it stalled out in a House committee four months later.


The proposal would not include the creation of a “civil window,” which give victims time to retroactively file civil cases against their abusers, regardless of when the crime happened or how old they are now. Such windows are particularly important, advocates say, given that Supreme Court precedent bars prosecution if a statute of limitation has already passed — even if that statute of limitation is later lengthened.

At the time of most of the crimes described in the grand jury report, Pennsylvania gave childhood sex abuse victims just two years to file civil lawsuits, and five to pursue criminal prosecutions. That means that, right now, the 7-year-old girl raped by her priest, as detailed in the report, probably cannot pursue either criminal prosecution or civil litigation. It’s likely that most of the victims in the report can't.

The grand jury called on lawmakers to create a two-year civil window for the more than 1,000 people whose sexual abuse is detailed in their report.

“These victims ran out of time to sue before they even knew they had a case; the church was still successfully hiding its complicity,” they wrote. “Our proposal would open a limited ‘window’ offering them a chance, finally, to be heard in court. All we're asking is to give those two years back.”

Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, who was raped by a priest at 13, also supported setting up such a window. "There's no compromise here,” he told local outlet PennLive on Tuesday. “Let's make no mistake. There's no compromise in these recommendations. We need to pass them exactly how they're recommended.”


On Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury accused Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, of helping to protect abusive priests when he was Pittsburgh's bishop. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Catholic Church has ardently opposed creating civil windows, arguing that they unfairly surface old accusations and could result in massive financial liability. And the Church isn’t wrong: In 2003, California gave childhood sex abuse survivors one year in which to file civil lawsuits. More than 500 people eventually took part in a $660 million settlement, the largest of its kind at the time, for abuses that went back seven decades.

“There was no cover-up going on,” Bishop David Zubik, of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said at a news conference Tuesday, according to the New York Times. “I think that it’s important to be able to state that. We have over the course of the last 30 years, for sure, been transparent about everything that has in fact been transpiring.”

The grand jury, clearly, had little sympathy for the Catholic Church’s worries.

“As a consequence of the cover-up, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted,” its members wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”

READ: States are trying to make it easier to punish the next Larry Nassar

Pennsylvania has already found itself enmeshed in multiple controversies over its statutes of limitations. For example, the sole sexual assault prosecution against Bill Cosby — he's been accused of sexual assault or rape by more than 45 women — took place in Pennsylvania because it was the only state in which the case’s statute of limitations had not expired. Andrea Constand, the woman whom Cosby was eventually convicted of assaulting, brought her case against him just weeks before the state’s statutes of limitations would’ve expired.

And in 2012, lawyers working on the child sex abuse case against former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky were contacted by one alleged victim who’d missed out on his chance to sue, because he came forward just nine months too late.

Cover image: Former priest James Faluszczak, who says he was molested by a priest as a teenager, reacts as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)