A sweeping grand jury report released Tuesday alleged widespread sexual abuse among Pennsylvania priests while church leaders covered it up. Its graphic victim accounts of abuse by more than 300 priests shocked Catholics in the state and reverberated around the world.
Yet, the nearly 1,400-page report made clear that few criminal cases may result from the massive investigation, which has left many wondering what’s next for victims.
So far, criminal or civil penalties for the accused priests have been scant. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the state’s statutes of limitations have hamstrung his ability to file charges and stonewalled victims seeking justice.
Under current Pennsylvania law, victims of child sexual abuse have until they are 30 to file civil suits and until they are 50 to file criminal charges. The oldest victim in the grand jury report was 83.
But legal experts say the grand jury report will lend new momentum to statute-reform efforts that have been percolating in Pennsylvania and beyond for years.
“This will reignite these battles at the state level,” said Michael Moreland, a law professor at Villanova University, a Catholic school outside Philadelphia.
Leading the effort in Pennsylvania is state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D), who said he was raped by a priest at his Catholic school and has been a longtime advocate for victims of child sexual abuse.
“No doubt,” Rozzi said in an interview. “The time for justice and the time for accountability is now.”
When the legislative session reconvenes in September, he plans to rewrite an existing bill with the goal of eliminating statutes of limitations, which, he says, have “aided and abetted” the priests and their superiors. Rozzi has called the state’s statutes of limitations “archaic” and “arbitrary.”
This builds on one of the recommendations that the grand jury made and that Shapiro endorsed. Rozzi said he’s going to push for the grand jury’s other recommendations, which include clarifying the penalties for failure to report child abuse and specifying that communications with law enforcement are not covered by confidentiality agreements — a tool the church allegedly used to silence abuse victims.
But most controversial is the grand jury’s recommendation to open a two-year “civil window” in the existing statutes of limitations that would allow victims older than 30 to sue the church for damages, no matter when the abuse occurred.
“These victims ran out of time to sue before they even knew they had a case,” the grand jury wrote.
Attempts to open a window in the statutes of limitations for civil cases have had mixed success, and have been stifled before in Pennsylvania. The church has lobbied fiercely against such provisions and has argued that it is too difficult to ensure fairness when litigating cases that are 30 years old or more, Moreland said.
“I do think that the retroactive opening up of statutes of limitations poses a problem because witnesses have died and documents are lost,” he said.
The window also would leave dioceses vulnerable to “financial catastrophe” as survivors of sexual abuse sue the church, Moreland said, pointing to a 2009 case in which the Diocese of Wilmington, which includes Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, filed for bankruptcy amid a flood of lawsuits.
Some of the church’s defenders, such as state Sen. Joe Scarnati (R), who sponsored the bill that Rozzi intends to amend, have denounced the actions of clergy members, but say retroactive lawsuits would unfairly bankrupt an institution that has already made reforms.
“Many of these crimes were committed numerous years ago and the Church has since instituted desperately needed reforms, however the acts are no less reprehensible,” Scarnati said in a statement to the Morning Call, a newspaper in Allentown, Pa.
Others have argued that if private institutions such as the Catholic Church can be sued in this two-year window, then public bodies such as school systems should be held accountable, too.
“I would hope they do it fairly, and not just apply it to the Catholic Church,” said Nick Cafardi, former dean of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University School of Law. “If they’re going to open the statutes, there should be no exceptions.”
In 2013, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a bill to allow a one-year window for civil lawsuits against dioceses in his state because he was concerned it singled out private institutions.
Rozzi’s office said that retroactive lawsuits against public officials would be unconstitutional but that his amendments would apply to everyone else. He said he believes that the calculus is simple: If an organization abuses children, it deserves whatever it gets.
“If you covered up children being raped, then, yes, you will be at risk,” Rozzi said.
He has been pushing for legislation like this since he was first elected in 2012. State Rep. Dave Reed (R), who is working with Rozzi to amend the bill, said that the allegations against the church keep getting worse and that it’s time lawmakers do something about it. “This is perhaps the only way to get this situation rectified,” he said.