Pennsylvania may change Priest Abuse Law

(Sept. 3, 2018)  Due to a grand jury report released last month which detailed sex abuse by hundreds of priests, Pennsylvania may change its law on the statutes of limitations for filing Pennsylvania priest abuse lawsuits.

En Español:  Pensilvania podría cambiar la Ley del Abuso Sexual de parte de los Sacerdotes

State lawmakers will soon vote on whether to eliminate Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for clergy sex abuse lawsuits, and whether to lengthen the time a victim has to file such a lawsuit.  Several other states — like Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Minnesota — have already restored victims’ expired rights to file civil lawsuits.

Even if such new law were passed by the Pennsylvania legislature, whether or not an alleged victim could file a sex abuse lawsuit would depend on several factors.  The grand jury lamented the fact that many of the 1,000 priest-abuse victims it estimated could not seek justice due to the passing of the statutes of limitations.  And there were likely thousands more victims, said the jury.

Current Pennsylvania Law fails Victims

Current Pennsylvania law allows child victims of sexual crimes to pursue criminal charges against their abusers until the victims reach age 50.  Victims can file civil lawsuits only until they reach age 30.  That law fails many people who, through shame and other personal reasons, don’t readily reach a point where they are ready to sue their perpetrators.  Many of the victims of pedophile priest George Epoch, for example, didn’t sue the church until the man was dead, decades after he had abused them.

A bill before the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives would eliminate the time limit for prosecutions and move the lawsuit ceiling to age 50.  A Pennsylvania state lawmaker who survived abuse himself also wants to give a temporary grace period to victims whose time limit to sue has already passed.

Similar bills have sat unsupported in the legislature in recent years, but House Majority Leader Dave Reed said last week that he wants to schedule this one for a vote in fall 2018.  Mr. Reed said in a web site statement:  “The actions revealed through the grand jury report are heinous and shameful.  (With) the timeliness of this report and its findings, the statute of limitations bill (is) primed for discussion in the House.”

The bill (SB 261) has sat in the House since last year after the Senate passed it unanimously.

Grand jury says lift prosecution limits

The grand jury report said last month that internal documents from six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania showed that more than 300 “predator priests” were credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.

Pennsylvania may change Priest Abuse Lawsuit Law

The grand jury recommended the state eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecutions.  Members noted that “no piece of legislation can predict the point at which a victim of child sex abuse will find the strength to come forward.”

As it now stands, people for whom a statute of limitations has expired before any new law extends the window are generally out of luck.

A U.S. Supreme Court precedent constricts any extension of  criminal liability after a case’s statute limit expires, said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and CEO of think tank focused on ending child abuse and neglect Child USA.  That means that even if the Pennsylvania bill passed, a child victim age 51 or older when it became law would not be able to seek criminal charges.

Pennsylvania limits for prosecuting child sex abuse cases used to be five years for prosecution and two years for civil suits.  They increased in the 1990s, and again in the 2000s, eventually settling on 50 and 30.

The grand jury wrote that even those grace-period changes prevent many of the hundreds of victims detailed in the report from suing.

Lawmaker who survived abuse wants broader limits

Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi has publicly shared his own personal account of being abused by a Catholic priest as an eighth-grader.

Mr. Rozzi wants to amend the Senate bill to provide a two-year window which would start whenever the new law would take effect.  In that time, any child sex abuse victim could sue an abuser, no matter how long ago the crime occurred.

The retroactive window for civil lawsuits “is the only avenue for these victims who are in the grand jury report” to get justice, said Mr. Rozzi to reporters.

In 2016, Mr. Rozzi gave the Pennsylvania House an emotional account of his rape by a priest in a rectory shower when he was 13 years old.  That story helped trigger the bill which the House unanimously passed, but which the Senate then defeated. The grand jury report says Graff died in a Texas jail in November 2002 while awaiting trial on suspicion of sexually abusing a boy.

Mr. Rozzi first told his story in 2009 after a second childhood friend of his killed himself. Both friends had also been abused by Graff, said Rozzi, a democrat.   He believes he has support in the House for his measure this year, but both chambers are controlled by Republicans.

Mr. Rossi vowed: “Expect that sometime in September, we will move a bill out of the House that has a retroactive window” for civil lawsuits.

Grand jury also recommends retroactive civil window

The grand jury also recommended a two-year civil lawsuit window to allow child victims whose statutes of limitations have expired to sue, the same measure which Mr. Rozzi proposes.

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