National News

Why the Explosive Report on Catholic Church Abuse Is Unlikely to Yield Criminal Charges

Posted August 16, 2018 12:42 a.m. EDT

The searing grand jury report issued Tuesday in Pennsylvania that accuses bishops and other Roman Catholic Church leaders in that state of covering up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests has prompted growing calls for justice, while leaving Americans wondering about the broader impact of the revelations on the church and other institutions.

But a web of legal barriers stands in the way of prosecuting most of the cases, and efforts to ease those barriers have repeatedly run into political opposition and fierce lobbying by the church and other groups.

Pennsylvania lags behind many other states in coming to grips with the problem, despite a series of grand jury investigations stretching back 15 years.

Q: What happens next?

A: Not much, legal experts and victims advocates say.

The nearly 900-page grand jury report is unlikely to lead to any new criminal charges or civil lawsuits over the abuse that it catalogs, because the statute of limitations has expired on those cases. Current state law allows victims of abuse as children 12 years to sue after they come of age at 18, meaning they must do so by age 30. Criminal complaints must be filed by the time the victim is 50. Those rules leave the vast majority of abuse survivors, who came forward later in life — the grand jury said they include people as old as 83 — with no legal recourse. Only two of the cases in the report have so far led to criminal charges.

The grand jury made four recommendations for enhancing protections for children and allowing victims to obtain justice for past abuse: eliminate the limit for criminal complaints completely; set aside the expired civil statutes of limitations for abuse cases; amend the state’s mandatory reporting law so that repeated failures to comply face harsher penalties; and bar confidentiality agreements that are meant to shield abusers.

For civil lawsuits, the attorney general and grand jury also recommended opening a temporary “window” to permit older victims to sue abusers, and the church. Earlier grand juries in Pennsylvania made similar recommendations.

But the Republican-controlled state Legislature has resisted calls to lift the statute of limitations, despite several attempts by lawmakers over the past dozen years.

A bill last year that would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse was passed in the state House, but when the Senate took it up, it stripped out a provision that would open a two-year window for victims who have aged out to file suit.

For it to become law, the state House must pass the amended version, but it has been stalled there by opposition to the removal of that retroactive provision.

Q: Why is change taking so long?

A: The church has lobbied fiercely against changing the statute or opening a window for lawsuits.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, whose president is Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg, one of the dioceses covered by the grand jury report, argues that the proposal would “force the people who make up an organization like the Catholic Church today defend themselves against a crime that was committed in their parish, school, or charitable program years ago.”

That claim has found support from the president of the state Senate, Joe Scarnati, a Republican who opposed the retroactive provision and has said it was unconstitutional.

Several former members of Scarnati’s staff and the wife of his current chief of staff work at a Harrisburg lobbying firm, Long, Nyquist and Associates, whose clients include the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the church’s statewide public policy arm.

“The church is literally spending millions of dollars buying up politicians here and making sure every avenue victims take are shut down,” said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat from Berks County, who said he was raped by a priest when he was 13. Rozzi has become a tireless advocate for victims of church sexual abuse.

“It’s been a battle from day one,” he said.

Q: What have other states done?

A: Most other states have already extended or abolished statutes of limitations for criminal prosecution of child sexual abuse felonies. Some states, including Minnesota, Delaware, Massachusetts and Hawaii, have also restored victims’ expired rights to file civil suits. But Pennsylvania has not.

“The barrier is the bishops’ extraordinary power over leading Republicans,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who founded Child USA, which researches and proposes policies to address child sexual abuse.

Attempts to extend statutes of limitations have fallen short in some states, including Maryland, New Jersey and New York. But New Jersey has no criminal statute of limitations for sexual assaults, and New York has no restrictions for first-degree felonies of any kind. New bills on the issue are pending in both New York and New Jersey.

Q. Why don’t the federal authorities investigate church sexual abuse?

A. So far, the federal government has left all investigations of church sexual abuse to the states, even though the church hierarchy has repeatedly been found to have transferred pedophile priests from one part of the country to another to conceal their abuse.

The FBI spent a year investigating sexual-abuse allegations against the former team doctor for the national gymnastics team, Larry Nassar, and the U.S. Senate conducted an inquiry into the case. But there appears to be little political appetite in Washington for any comparable federal scrutiny of the Roman Catholic Church, even though abuse of minors by priests has been exponentially more widespread and has been documented in 10 previous reports by grand juries and attorneys general, according to the research and advocacy group