Other states tackle sex-abuse cases
Changing the statute of limitations sparks debate about costs, fairness — and justice
As the sexual abuse debate continues in Pa., other states have likewise attempted to tackle the issue.
As the rigorous debate continues in Pennsylvania surrounding the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse, other states across the country have likewise attempted to tackle the issue.
And while the outcomes have varied, some see similarities to events here.
In Pennsylvania, legislators have been mulling House Bill 1947, a measure extending or eliminating the criminal and civil statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse. It passed overwhelmingly in the House in April. The state Senate amended it, sending it back to the House for consideration. The Senate removed the provision that would allow adult survivors who are not yet 50 years old to pursue legal recourse against their abusers in decadesold cases.
Changing the statute of limitations is vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church, with Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput contending it would have a disastrous fiscal toll on the archdiocese.
In New Jersey, state Sen. Joe Vitale, D-19, of Woodbridge, has worked on behalf of victim justice whether through the elimination of the charitable immunity status or currently through his efforts to expand the civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse survivors through their 50s.
At a rally at the state capitol in Trenton for statute of limitation reform, Vitale said in New Jersey most of the resistance against the legislation has been from the Catholic Conference, with some other religious organizations voicing concerns as well.
“They say going forward, we know that we have to do a better job of protecting children,” he said. “They
have these false arguments that these settlements would bankrupt the church or they would be unable to do their charity work and none of that is true.
“If they were a religious institution – or a public institution, if they were a part of the abuse, then they should be held accountable, period,” Vitale said.
During a recent walk from Pennsylvania to Trenton in support of statute of limitation expansion in these cases, Bob Hoatson, co-founder and president of Road to Recovery, talked about the issue.
“If one of these three went in favor of us,” he said of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, “we think the whole country would go.”
Hoatson then zeroed in on the fight in New Jersey.
“The problem with the law in New Jersey is we won’t hear about the people who were abused in ‘96 and 2000 and 2002 ‘til 30 years from now when they’re able to deal with it and they come forward,” he said. “If there’s no statute for murder of the body, why is there statute for murder of the soul? Murder is murder so get rid of it.”
Mitchell Garabedian, whose work with abuse survivors was highlighted in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” said Massachusetts changed its civil provisions just last year to allow victims to file suit against an individual or institution until they are 53 years old, or seven years from when they make the connection between the harm and the conduct.
“Unfortunately, it has left many victims who did not fit in the statute without a remedy,” he said. “It has helped many other victims. It’s a bittersweet amendment.”
He said it took five years to pass, in part, in his opinion, because of those opposing it, especially the Catholic Church.
“Victims need to be validated,” Garabedian said. “The way for many to be validated is for victims to gain access to the courts for justice.”
He pointed to murder cases, where no statutes exist. “Due process works fine,” he said.
The attorney posed a question: “If institutions have nothing to hide, why are they opposing the statute of limitations to be extended?”
In Pennsylvania, Amy Hill, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said measures to allow past victims the opportunity for civil litigation would be cost prohibitive.
“Catholic parishioners today cannot afford the kind of massive financial settlements that would be demanded by plaintiffs’ attorneys should a retroactive measure be opened,” she said. “That is who will be punished; and that is why the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is advocating for fair reform.”
She pointed to Delaware as an example where two schools, one in an inner-city neighborhood, closed following the passage of similar legislation there. In addition cuts were also made in that diocese in its Catholic Charities and cemeteries, and 10 percent of diocesan employees were laid off.
She said whatever the outcome of House Bill 1947, the church would continue to provide for childhood sexual abuse victims, such as the more than $18 million spent in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for training all adults who work with children, educating children in recognizing and reporting inappropriate behavior and supporting victims by paying for therapy, medications, travel and child care issues related to that care and more.
“No matter the final resolution with the legislation, the Catholic Church will keep its sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed,” Hill said.
The costs of these cases vary greatly.
At the New Jersey rally, victim Annette Nestler showed a release from four years ago, which she chose not to sign, in which she was offered $20,000.
“This, this is a joke,” she said. “And this is a standard amount – $20,000. And, I have a lifetime, a lifetime of damages.”
In Delaware, the numbers were different.
Tom Neuberger, whose firm has represented abuse victims for years, said his cases during the window that was established after the law was changed in 2007 netted $110 million, or about $750,000 per survivor.
Neuberger represented victim John Vai in Delaware, where the Diocese of Wilmington filed for bankruptcy. The attorney said the assets of the diocese were determined to be $1.7 billion and at the end of the proceedings, the amount they owed was $110 million.
“That’s less than 2 percent of their assets,” he said, adding that the Diocese of Wilmington is about a third to a fifth the size of Philadelphia’s.
Each year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an audit of American dioceses related to this issue called the Annual Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In the 2015 version, it stated that $87 million had been distributed for childhood sexual abuse settlements; $8.7 million had been allocated for therapy for victims; $11 million was directed for support for offenders; $30 million went to attorneys’ fees and $3.8 million was absorbed in other costs.
The number of settlements was unclear.
During her testimony in June at a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, University of Pennsylvania constitutional law expert Marci A. Hamilton looked at California’s experience.
There, she said, with an overall population of 35 million, 1,150 lawsuits were filed when a civil window opened and five of those were determined to have false claims. She added that the case also disclosed 300 predators, formerly unknown, and that church officials said about half of them were dead.
Some, such as Neuberger and former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, say the Catholic Church has a pattern when faced with potential legislation of this type.
“For every year that they delay the enactment of legislation that would allow victims an opportunity to go to court, so many victims die off,” Neuberger said. “The tactic is delay, delay, delay.”
Then, he said he could predict what would occur if the retroactivity portion of House Bill 1947 passed.
“They will pull the trigger and change the playing field for the fight for justice and access to their assets,” Neuberger said. “They will pull the bankruptcy trigger a year into it in Pennsylvania. It’s part of their strategy.”
Neuberger said the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is no exception.
“Chaput, he’s using the whole nationwide playbook to preserve the church’s assets and keep the dirty laundry from coming out,” the attorney said. “By portraying themselves as the victims, (they think) that somehow people will forget the horrors that the survivors have experienced.”
Before being assigned to Philadelphia, Chaput was involved in opposing a similar effort in Colorado to expand the statute of limitations.
Abraham was responsible for empaneling a 2005 grand jury looking into allegations of childhood sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. That panel, along with another in 2011, found more than 60 priests in the diocese with evidence of abusing dozens of victims, including many with ties to Delaware County.
“The Catholic Church is going to protect their priests,” Abraham said. “They care about their institution. They care about the corporation. They don’t care about people. It’s the same M-O.
“Their approach is totally predictable,” she said.
In the summer, the former prosecutor said, “It is a disgrace that the church at this late date is still covering up sexual abuse which has now gone exposed.”
Ken Gavin, director of communications for the archdiocese, said the church did not oppose elements of House Bill 1947 related to the lifting of the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse of minors.
He said church officials said they urge anyone who has been abused to come forward and report that to law enforcement.
“Justice,” he said, “comes from the justice system, but it does not necessarily lead to healing.”
Gavin added, “Archbishop Chaput has a longstanding commitment to victims of clergy sexual abuse and assisting them on their path to healing. He has met with several victims personally over the years as archbishop of Denver and as archbishop of Philadelphia. That is something he will continue to do.
“The substantial proof of his commitment and that of the church to promoting true healing for survivors and preventing abuse in the first place can be seen in the financial resources that had been committed to those endeavors,” Gavin said.
He said the archdiocese has spent more than $13 million since 2002 to provide victim assistance to individuals and families, from counseling with a therapist of the individual’s choice, medications related to mental health treatment, psychiatric services, travel and child care related to therapy sessions and vocational assistance.
“The Victim Assistance Program offered by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is administered by professionals whose purpose is to provide support for adult survivors, child victims and their family members who have been affected by sexual abuse,” he said. “The focus is on healing through outpatient counseling.”
Gavin said the archdiocese does not mandate the types of services a person receives, but follows the guidelines set forth by the survivor’s counselor and that services are provided without conducting investigative pre-screenings.
“Assistance is provided for survivors and their families no matter when the abuse occurred and the archdiocese doesn’t put a limitation on how long the assistance will be offered,” he said. “Efforts on the part of the archdiocese to assist survivors far exceed what is being done by any other private or public institution.”
When asked if there was a unified strategy in the American church’s response to statute of limitations, Judy Keane, director of public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered the annual report and the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
A June letter from National Review Board Chairman Francesco C. Cesareo speaks of the church’s work with the issue.
“The bishops need to be acknowledged for keeping the protection of children and young people in the forefront of their leadership by continually enhancing their efforts to comply with the charter,” he wrote. “There also continues to be a strong commitment to the victims of sexual abuse on the part of the bishops as they offer outreach and foster reconciliation with the survivors.”
He wrote that the bishops remained diligent in removing clergy from ministry whenever a credible allegation has been brought forward.
In the report evaluating 190 dioceses in the United States, 26 allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy were reported in the year. Of those, seven were substantiated.
Some say church officials don’t want the cases to go to court for fear of information being unearthed.
John Salveson of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse said the Catholic Church spent $2 million to block efforts to have the legislation passed to avoid going to court.
Hill, of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, did not respond when asked how much has been spent on the effort.
Boston victim Phil Saviano said the discovery portion of the trial process is important.
“Statute of limitations reform is a pathway to justice for victims,” he said. “It’s also a way to keep children safe because … pedophiles have a very, very long career, so to speak. Someone who molested a child in his 20s is very likely still interested in targeting children in his 60s and 70s.”
He told about his own trial.
“I learned the way to get access at the records, and therefore the truth, was to file a civil suit,” Saviano said. “As I went through discovery, I learned that over the course of (my perpetrator’s) career, there were seven bishops in three states that knew he was a child molester … If it was not for my ability to file that civil suit, all this informa-
tion would not have been exposed.”
The Rev. James Connell, a Roman Catholic priest and canon lawyer in Wisconsin, said Pope John Paul II changed the statute of limitations, allowing for each case — no matter the age — to be determined on an individual basis.
“That’s part of the problem with the bishops,” he
said. “They just do not want total openness and transparency.”
He said the church has its own legal system, called canon law, with structures similar to a district attorney’s office. Allegations of merit are required to be sent to the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in Rome to determine outcome.
“We have no way to review if the cases that should be sent to Rome are actually sent to Rome,” he said. “By church law, they are required to send those. If they are violating
the laws, the bishops can be punished.”
The priest added disclosure would help build trust.
“The Catholic bishops over the years have given the appearance to keep the lid on as long as they can,” Connell said. “Common sense simply says tell the truth, get it out in the open.”
In the meantime, victim advocates continue their work.
“Most of the resistance comes from the institutions and whether it’s the churches or the Boy Scouts or some
other organizations, who believe that this will … put them out of business, that this will cause them to become bankrupt, that they’ll no longer be able to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless,” Vitale said. “None of that is true.
“What is true,” he continued, “is that victims of child sex abuse who are now adults deserve justice and deserve their day in court and deserve to hold their abusers accountable, whether those abusers are individuals or the
institution that was culpable in the abuse and allowed it to happen. They saw it happening and they did nothing. They saw it happening and they moved those abusers to another place where they continued to abuse.”
He saw allowing for civil litigation in these cases would have a deterrent effect.
“By giving adults who were abused as children justice, you’re giving justice to young people and really forces those institutions to pay attention to the children
that are under their care,” he said.
In front of the New Jersey capitol, the senator explained the moment as he saw it.
“Child abuse may never stop,” he said. “It may have been happening since the beginning of time but we have an obligation to make sure that children are protected as much as possible. This is one of the most important moral pieces of legislation that I’ve ever been involved in because it goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being.”
Annette Nestler, of New Jersey, holds signs as she prepares for the Walk to End SOL PA to NJ last month.