Questions, & Where Do We Go from Here?
Q: Jim McKelvey, visiting from Pittsburgh last week, emailed, “Father, thank you for your words Sunday, which I really needed to hear. It was a big help, given that this time it is my diocese. One question. Where is the law on Clergy Abuse Right Now?”
Answer: “Jim, it was a pleasure meeting you. A handful of parishioners also engaged me on this question, and I’m thankful to all of you. In brief:
What are statutes of limitations?
A basic principle of American law, statutes of limitations ensure fairness in our legal system by requiring lawsuits to be filed in a timely manner. Without them, non-profits and churches today could face lawsuits alleging abuse from decades ago. It is nearly impossible for an institution or individual to defend against a lawsuit from decades past. Over time, witnesses become unreliable, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased.
What was Pa. House Bill 1947 (April 2016) all about?
With that Bill, Pa. House of Representatives voted to allow civil lawsuits to be filed retroactively for cases against non-profits (i.e. The Catholic Church) in which survivors are up to 30 years old. The Bill, however, only applied to private or non-public organizations like the Catholic Church. It proposed to treat government institutions such as public schools and juvenile facilities differently and it fails to treat all victims of child sexual abuse in an equitable fashion. This legislation as previously worded did not treat everyone equally, which is one reason why it did not get out of the House. There are special protections and exemptions in the bill for abuse that happened in public schools and government-run programs, excluding the majority of survivors of abuse.
Why does the Church oppose this legislation?
First and very importantly, the Church is NOT AT ALL opposed to eliminating the criminal statute of limitations. The Church supports that anyone who sexually abuses a child should be severely punished by the law and that all sexual predators should be behind bars and removed from society, so they cannot hurt anyone else. That has happened. Criminal cases require a burden of proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt and fairness is built into the system with many checks and balances.
By contrast, in all civil cases, anyone can file a civil suit with a much lower burden of proof. An alleged abuser may not even be still alive, but a third party, like his or her employer, could be sued even after the perpetrator or possible witnesses are dead, or clear evidence is long gone. Removing this fairness from our judicial system would make it impossible for any organization that cares for children to defend itself in court many years later.
Public schools are protected from any retroactive filing of such lawsuits, but not private or non-profit institutions. So there are serious Constitutional issues that will again arise in Harrisburg. The Church feels that the legislation as it was proposed DOES ZERO to enhance the protection of young people today. The Church also has opposed the proposed Bill because as it was written it does nothing to assist the many victims abused in public schools or institutions in the past.
Father, where do you think this will now go?
Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks County) has reintroduced the former bill, now Senate Bill 261 (SB261), which has passed the Senate. It now goes to the House this fall. The bill would specifically allow a victim of abuse to file a claim up until the age of 50. The more controversial aspect of the bill would eliminate ANY statute of limitations on bringing criminal charges in such cases, even if that would only apply to future cases. And therein lies the Constitutional struggle for fairness.
I pray, and I urge, the Church and our legislators to reach an equitable middle ground in what should be their only focus and goal: justice for the victims everywhere in every school and institution. It is time to set the example and lead. It is time.