It’s been 15 years since the first Pennsylvania grand jury reviewed allegations of sexual abuse within Catholic dioceses in the commonwealth. In 2003, the grand jury announced findings of a review of a diocese in Philadelphia, accusing 120 priests of abuse over 35 years.
The time has come to finally listen to these reports and act.
At each stop, the grand juries made a series of recommendations, a list of potential fixes to ensure what was learned by years of investigating doesn’t happen again. First on the list in that 2003 review was a call to action to end the statute of limitations on child sex abuse.
If that recommendation sounds familiar, it should. Many of the ensuing grand juries, including the most recent review of six Pennsylvania dioceses — including Harrisburg — led off with the same call to action.
In 2003, victims had to report abuse before they turned 20. State law was changed in 2006 to give victims until the age of 50 to seek criminal prosecution in child sex abuse cases. That remains the statute of limitations more than a decade later.
The latest grand jury report — which noted more than 300 “predator priests” who abused at least 1,000 victims — found that priests had committed sexual abuse of children in six Roman Catholic dioceses across the state over a 60-year period. Only two priests were arrested because too much time had passed.
Some of the recommendations have paid off. Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, which released a report last week examining the grand jury reports from the past 15 years, said movement has been made. She said the 2006 move raising the age to 50 for victims to report abuse was vital.
This latest grand jury review has put the issue back on the front burner and several lawmakers have pledged to act when the General Assembly returns to Harrisburg later this month.
The Senate has already passed legislation that would abolish the criminal statute of limitations without offering a window for people to file civil lawsuits over old abuse claims. Under the state’s civil statute of limitations, victims have until the age of 30 to sue.
It is important the state act on both. Opening the civil window is a way for victims to get justice because many of the victims are over 50 and the majority of the priests in the grand jury report are dead; they won’t be criminally charged.
The civil window “is their only pathway to justice,” Marci Hamilton, founder of Child USA, said.
State lawmakers have continued to talk about erasing legal hurdles for prosecution of crimes that occurred, sometimes, decades ago, but they have yet to take any real action. The time has come to move.