Fight continues to expand statute of limitations for abuse victims
PHILADELPHIA >> Surrounded by those integral to exposing the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, advocates of statute of limitation reform here in Pennsylvania pleaded their cause Tuesday during a press conference.
“The statute of limitations hurts no one but victims and it helps no one but perpetrators,” said Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, during the press conference at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel.
He stood next to state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County, Massachusetts victims Phil Saviano and Joe Crowley, and attorney Roderick “Eric” MacLeish as he voiced his support for the expansion of the statute of limitations, or the time a victim can bring a claim against a defendant, here in Pennsylvania.
Amy Hill, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said they have no issue with the elimination of criminal statutes but have concerns about the constitutionality of the civil component.
“I can reiterate that no matter the final resolution with the legislation, the Catholic Church will continue to keep its sincere commitment to the emotional well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed,” she said.
The saga of the scandal in the Boston Archdiocese formed the backdrop for the movie “Spotlight,” which won this year’s Best Picture at the Academy Awards detailing the work of the Boston Globe investigative unit that blew the lid off years of abuse and a cover-up by the church hierarchy.
Here in Pennsylvania, according to the Morning Call, six Catholic dioceses, Erie, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown and Altoona-Johnstown are being evaluated as part of a Pennsylvania Attorney General grand jury investigation. The Altoona-Johnstown report identified at
least 50 priests who had harmed children between the 1940s to the 1990s as well as evidence of concealment by religious authorities.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia had its own grand jury reports, empaneled by Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, in 2005 and in 2011.
As the General Assembly begins its fall session, one of the things that may be considered is HB 1947, a state law repealing the statute of criminal limitations for childhood sex abuse. It also contained a controversial provision sponsored by Rozzi to extend the civil statute of limitations by 20 years - and also make it retroactive, in effect allowing victims from decades ago to be able to bring suit against their abusers now. The measure was overwhelmingly approved in the Pennsylvania House earlier this year, before stalling in the Senate.
The state Senate amended the House version, eliminating criminal statutes but stripping out the retroactive language when it comes to civil suits, allowing them only moving forward after the law is passed. Currently under Pennsylvania law, victims have 12 years after their 18th birthday to bring suit, in effect when they are 30 years old.
Victims’ advocates say that’s not enough time for those harmed to come to terms with what occurred to them.
“We know that it takes victims sometimes 30 or more years to be able to disclose that abuse for a number of reasons,” Dion said. “But even if it takes the victims 30 years to disclose the abuse and that perpetrator is still alive, we often find that they’re still molesting kids at 70 and 80 years old in walkers and wheelchairs because pedophiles don’t retire. And that’s why it’s so important that we have a retroactive civil window that’ll allow those old cases to come forward.”
Dion said not expanding the statutes may place Pennsylvania’s children at risk.
“I think it’s no coincidence that we look at the states that have the biggest scandals, they’re the ones with the most restrictive statutes of limitation because that’s where perpetrators go where they know they can’t be held accountable,” he said.
He compared it to those wanting to smoke marijuana.
“Imagine if the most important thing in your life was being able to smoke marijuana without being harassed by the police, where would you live?” he asked. “You would live in Oregon, or Colorado or Washington state.”
Dion said a similar dynamic occurs in states with more lax statutes.
“(Pedophiles) use the statute of limitations as a shield,” he said. “They know they don’t have to keep victims quiet forever. They just have to keep them quiet long enough to run out the clock.”
Hill said past allegations have been reported to local district attorneys and that the state’s dioceses adhere to safe environment practices such as training and background checks for employees, clergy and volunteers.
“Our diocese enforce a zero-tolerance policy for clergy, employees and volunteers accused of abuse,” she said. “Credible allegations of misconduct result in permanent removal from ministry, no matter how long the abuse took place.”
She added, “The Catholic community is committed to encouraging healing among survivors and their families, and offers lifelong resources for survivors, including counseling and addiction treatment.”
Hill directed anyone who has suffered abuse within the Catholic Church to first contact law enforcement authorities and then their diocese for support services.
House Bill 1947 is expected to be debated again as the Legislature returns for its fall session. The retroactive language has been vehemently opposed by the insurance industry and the Catholic church.
Several Delaware County House members felt backlash in their own parishes after voting in favor of the legislation. State Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-162, of Ridley Park, was mentioned by name in his parish bulletin as voting in favor of the measure. State Rep. Jamie Santora, R-163, of Upper Darby, said the actions of the archdiocese came very close to “electioneering.”
A letter from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput urging Catholics to contact their state senators to vote against the measure after he passed the House was read or distributed in every parish in the archdiocese.
Rozzi urged victims to contact their state senators as well to offer their perspective.
He said discussions with leadership have revealed that if the original retroactive language is inserted back into the bill, it won’t pass in the senate.
“Certain senators have said if we put back the retroactive measure, if we change any portion of that bill, they will not take it up,” he said. “We need victims to come out and I know it’s very difficult for a lot of us but this is the time. We need to flood that line and make calls and let these senators know we are not going away.”
Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, advocates for statute of limitations reform Tuesday at press conference held in Philadelphia. Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, updated the fight for House Bill 1947, including his amendment that would allow victims from abuse decades ago to file civil actions against their abusers.