After PA Grand Jury Report, Will Laws Change to Better Protect Children?

Attorney General Joshua Shapiro and the jurors proposed legislative initiatives they say will bring greater justice for victims and end protection of perpetrators.

Pennsylvania Capitol
Pennsylvania Capitol (photo: Shutterstock)

ERIE, Pa. — The damning grand jury report released Aug. 14 catalogued accusations of sexual abuse of almost 1,000 children by 300 Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses, while also accusing Church authorities of shielding perpetrators.

But the investigators’ findings, however shocking, are unlikely to result in new criminal charges or civil lawsuits, say state authorities. This unsettling fact has prompted Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the report’s authors and some state lawmakers to demand legal reforms that would give older victim-survivors justice.

“The time for justice and the time for accountability is now,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who said he was raped by a priest at his Catholic school, told reporters this week.

The grand jury report outlined four recommendations to change Pennsylvania’s laws they say will bring greater justice for victims and end protection of perpetrators. Most importantly, the proposed reforms would remove the state’s statute of limitations for criminal complaints involving child sexual abuse. It would also create a temporary “window” for civil cases to be filed regardless of when the incidents occured, reviving an ongoing legislative debate that has pitted Pennsylvania Church leaders and many Republican lawmakers against Democrats like Rozzi.

Further, the report’s authors seek to prohibit confidential nondisclosure agreements that “apply to criminal activity” and to tighten up the state’s mandatory reporting requirements for child sexual abuse.

Under current Pennsylvania law, victims of child sexual abuse must file civil suits by age 30 and criminal charges by age 50. Advocates for victims point to those who have suffered abuse during childhood but struggle for decades to come forward and identify the perpetrator — one victim in the report was 83.

The authors of the grand jury report seek to remove any time limit on criminal cases, while calling for the statute of limitations in civil cases to be lifted for two years.

In 2017 the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 261 that would remove the statute of limitations for criminal cases and move the civil statute limit to age 50.  The legislation proposes to allow sexual-abuse cases to be filed against public or governmental institutions by removing the sovereign immunity defense. The bill stalled in the state’s House of Representatives and is expected to be taken up again in its next session, which begins in September. 


Bishops Zubik and Persico Respond

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh in a statement to the Register said he has “unequivocally supported all four of the reforms advocated by the Pennsylvania attorney general for some time.” On one point, the Pittsburgh bishop said the reforms don’t go far enough to apply the repeal of criminal statute of limitations for all child sexual abuse across all sectors of society.

“Frankly, I believe in eliminating both the civil and criminal statute of limitations, as long as it is constitutional and applies to every victim, whether the abuse occurred in a public, private, religious or secular setting,” wrote Bishop Zubik. Further, he said the diocese has made no confidentiality agreements in cases of child sexual abuse since 2002 and does “not enforce historical confidentiality clauses in these cases.” Noting the large number of mandatory reporters among volunteers and those employed by the Church, he said the diocese also supports “clear penalties for failing to report child sexual abuse to authorities.”

Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, one of the six Catholic dioceses investigated in the grand jury report and the only bishop to be noted positively by Shapiro at his Aug. 14 news conference, reacted with a measure of caution to the proposals, signaling the high stakes for local Church leaders.

Bishop Persico noted that a current bill moving through the Pennsylvania Legislature would lift the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution and suggested this change would help remedy the injustice of sexual predators remaining outside the reach of the law.

He was more circumspect about a temporary “window” for civil complaints and said he would need time to evaluate all the proposals.

“We have to look for justice for the victims, and we have to look at the ministry of the Church,” he told the Register.

“What would happen to all of our ministries as a diocese? I have to be concerned for victims and also for the person in the pew.”

The Erie bishop didn’t spell out his worries about the financial impact of the proposed civil window for abuse lawsuits, but state Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, questioned whether the state Legislature should pass regulations that could penalize a religious institution that has made a major commitment to protecting children from abuse, in the wake of the devastating 2002 clergy-abuse crisis.

“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 Allentown Morning Call.

Bishop Persico also said that he planned to delve into the issue of confidentiality agreements and solicit opinions from both his diocesan attorneys and victims, who signed such agreements in the past.

The 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People specifically bars dioceses from pressuring abuse victims to sign nondisclosure agreements to secure a financial settlement.

Bishop Persico said he had never approved a confidentiality agreement in Erie, though legal analysts confirm that some victims are too fragile to publicly disclose the trauma they have suffered and prefer private settlements.

“I have a call coming up with someone who, many years ago, had signed [a confidentiality agreement],” said Bishop Persico. “I want to talk to him about it so we can look at this.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, did not respond to requests for comment this week. But legal specialists contacted by the Register strongly challenged proposals to lift the statutes of limitations for civil and criminal complaints involving child sexual abuse, while mostly applauding efforts to tighten up reporting requirements and ending most confidentiality agreements, especially those involving criminal cases.


Assessing Statute of Limitations Changes

The majority of states have already lengthened or removed statutes of limitations for criminal prosecution in such cases. Some states, like Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Minnesota, have made it possible for victims to go back and take advantage of newly extended limits for civil suits. Thus far, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have resisted such legislation, with new bills pending in two of these states.

Judge Michael Talbot, a retired chief judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals and the chairman of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s lay review board since 2002, said he was “surprised” and concerned about an effort to set aside any time limits for initiating criminal prosecution, while noting that these views were his own and that he did not speak for the archdiocese.

“I understand why they would like to open [the window] for an extended period of time,” Judge Talbot told the Register, expressing his own disgust at the report’s findings.

“But let’s say your defense was an alibi. You couldn’t even remember [the details of your whereabouts] 40 years ago,” he noted, and timelines in such cases would be “difficult for prosecutors as well as defense attorneys.”

Turning to the report’s proposal for a two-year window for civil lawsuits, Judge Talbot said that more details need to be fleshed out before he could assess the recommendation.

“What they don’t say is almost as important as what they do say,” he explained, posing a series of questions.

Do the report’s authors want the statute of limitations for civil claims to apply only to Catholic priests, or all alleged offenders with access to minors, from doctors and police officers to athletic coaches and teachers? Would clergy from other churches be included?

“If they try to focus solely on Catholic priests,” he noted, “it might not withstand a legal challenge because it would clearly be prejudicial — tailored to one group of offenders.”

Why, he asked, should those who were abused by a public schoolteacher not receive the same opportunity to file a civil claim decades after the abuse occurred?

Talbot was more open to a reassessment of confidentiality agreements for criminal complaints. And he emphasized the need for strong reporting requirements.

As he reviewed the report’s proposals, Judge Talbot suggested there should be more emphasis on preventative measures, as well, like the background checks and safe-environment training mandated by the Dallas Charter. “We are never going to have a crime-free community,” he said, “but any law enforcement officer will tell you that preventative steps are key.”

Still, the retired judge warned against any rapid approval of legal reforms in the heat of the moment.

“I am exceedingly sympathetic to all those who have been victimized,” he said. “But when you talk about changing the law, you have to be very careful.”

However, Mary Leary, a law professor at The Catholic University of America, took a slightly different view of the report’s recommendations, as she underscored the very real “tension” between the statute of limitations, “which exist so that the accused has a chance to build a defense by going to the date and time of the crime and rebuilding what occurred,” and the demand for justice for victims following the lifelong trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

“[T]he statute of limitations does serve a legitimate purpose of fairness to those accused of crimes,” said Leary. “In the child sexual-abuse context, this principle is in tension with the legitimate claim of victims that this form of victimization is so damaging and unique that children cannot bring themselves to report it until many years after the victimization, and defendants should not benefit from that reality.”

The report’s recommendations on this matter are surely “controversial,” she agreed. But they are designed to “treat child sexual abuse the same as murder, which in most states does not have a statute of limitations.

“As one witness told the grand jury — sexual abuse is ‘murder of the soul,’ and understood in that context, it should have the same statute of limitations.”

The report’s authors buttressed their demand for a two-year civil window by arguing that victims who were 30 or older in the 1990s lacked both the information and the time to see that their experience was part of a systemic problem within the Catholic Church that would not come to light until 2002.

“These victims ran out of time to sue before they knew they had a case: The Church was still successfully hiding its complicity,” reads the report. “Our proposal would open a limited ‘window’ offering them a chance, finally, to be heard in court. “

Leary was sympathetic to this argument.

The grand jury report documented the Church’s cover-up of “horrific acts,” she said, and it was “very wrong” to “then hide behind the statute of limitations to argue it’s too late to sue them.”

That said, she also made an additional point: “Any change in this area of the law [must] not target only the Church, but all institutions.”


Confidentiality and Reporting Requirements

Further, Leary suggested the proposed ban on confidentiality agreements involving criminal abuse would draw strong support in the present cultural and political climate.

“Whether it is sexual harassment and the ‘me-too movement,’” she said, “or rape by powerful people like Bill Cosby, no one should be silenced — particularly in the context of institutional and systemic abuse.”

On that point, Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said: “I would agree with the report that the agreements should not protect perpetrators.” He told the Register, “Confidentiality agreements in criminal cases are harsh, mean and punish the victim.”

But he stressed the equal need for sensitivity to victims, who may not be prepared to disclose traumatic events. Thus, rather than a sweeping ban on confidentiality agreements, he suggested that such agreements could be designed to shield victims and not their abusers.

Then Father Fox took up the report’s call for better reporting of abuse allegations and said it showed a welcome desire to improve state laws designed to clarify “who must report alleged abuse and when it must be reported.”

The Dallas Charter outlines specific reporting protocols for dioceses that receive abuse allegations, and designated staff must promptly forward the information to local law enforcement, the lay review board and parishes. Yet the authors of the grand jury report, which mostly dealt with the six dioceses’ handling of historic cases, had little to say about the post-2002 reforms.

Father Fox said he was not an expert on Pennsylvania law dealing with such matters, but said it was vital for state lawmakers to clarify penalties for failing to report the allegations to the relevant civil authorities.

But as Church authorities and legal analysts weigh these four proposals from the grand jury report, the state Legislature will meet in September, when it will consider whether to adopt one or more of the recommendations.

Rep. Rozzi believes there is a good chance that the statute of limitations will be lifted, though his Republican counterparts have blocked past efforts to modify the law.

The shocking details of criminal sexual abuse and Church cover-ups revealed in the report could alter the political equation.

However, law professor Gerard Bradley of the University of Notre Dame urged the state lawmakers to take time for their deliberations.

“Grand jurors are just regular people who are randomly selected for service. That is how the members of the special investigating grand jury in Pennsylvania described themselves,” Bradley told the Register. 

“The grand jurors’ frustration at what they found is understandable, and justified. But it is not a sufficient reason to change the law.”

“The facts which they uncovered and exposed instead provide the occasion for Pennsylvania legislators, in a calmer moment, to consider legal reform,” he continued.

“When they do, they should take into account the long-term consequences, not only for victims of sexual abuse and their molesters, but for all religious communities in Pennsylvania, because no legal reform could constitutionally be applied only to the Catholic Church.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.