Clergy Sex Abuse in Pennsylvania: No Justice Is Intolerable

Posted in: Criminal Law

Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued an extraordinary grand jury report detailing sexual abuse going back 70 years in six Roman Catholic dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania. The report itself is nearly 900 pages while the responses appended add another 450 pages. Here it is. Pennsylvania now has the distinction of having every Catholic diocese subjected to a grand jury investigative report: Philadelphia, then Johnstown/Altoona, and now the rest of them. This monumental achievement fills in more details of arrogant and thoughtless bishops, craven pedophile priests, and a system that rewards the secrecy that endangers children. While we have seen this before, it’s still shocking to read just how impervious this institution has been to the suffering of little children.

It is curious that in the United States, the clergy sex abuse studies are only at the state level while other countries like Australia and Ireland have conducted studies sponsored by the national government. I posit that it is excessive timidity on the part of our elected representatives afraid of their shadows if they publicly criticize a religious organization—even for crimes against children. Thus, Members of Congress and the Presidents have been MIA when it comes to clergy sex abuse. They couldn’t wait to pass legislation to address the abuse of Olympic athletes, which happened this year not long after the Larry Nassar scandal broke, but there has yet to be a single hearing or even a speech by a national leader addressing let alone condemning the systemic sexual abuse of thousands of children across the United States.

The theme of the report buttresses what we have learned across the globe in the last 20 years: the Catholic hierarchy has callously covered up the criminal behavior of its in-house pedophile priests, endangering children in the process. And the facts are locked away in secret archives. We need to pause for a moment to reflect on the existence of these “secret archives.” When the bishops make the specious argument that they should not be liable for old claims because, as they love to say, “memories fade and witnesses disappear,” remember that their own files have the facts pristinely preserved—and utterly unavailable to the victims without the aid of the courts.

What this monumental Report reinforces is that the public needs to see the rest of the secret archives—in Pennsylvania, every other state, and every other country. The Church may need the release even more. The bishops will never escape this self-induced nightmare without unlocking the file cabinets so that the poison flows away from the organization. So long as the files sit silently in their locked cabinets, there is legal and moral risk. Smart bishops are simply opening up their files to get it over with; they issue lists of abusing priests to the public and look to the future. The shortsighted ones like Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York are sitting on a time bomb that will go off at some point, because the secrets are explosive and the continuing coverup is a detonator.

As CHILD USA and argued in an amicus brief regarding the Report, there are only two pathways of wresting the facts of institution-based child sex abuse from the institutions:

  1. Grand jury investigative reports
  2. Civil lawsuits

Why do we care about the facts, though? I mean, these are facts no one really wants to believe exist. But when we read such a report, we passionately care because in the United States, it is assumed that each individual is worthy of justice and institutions are accountable for the harm they inflict. Reports like this one document no justice and no accountability, which is an intolerable combination.

No Justice Is Intolerable

Part of what makes this Report and others like it so hard to read is that so many children have been treated so badly over so many years. The wrongs are relentless. And the kids are so defenseless. There is no happy ending. When they reach a place in their lives where they can demand justice, they are told it’s too late. The stupid deadline, the statute of limitations, expired and that’s the end of their legal journey. The injustice just piles up.

As you read along, your gut tells you that you are witnessing evil and your conscience quickly posits that there must be something that someone can do. You search your soul: “What can I do?” Everyone wants to know what they can do. What needs to be done is an adjustment to the universe: the victims need justice restored and the bad actors need to be punished.

Out of over 300 abusing priests and 1,000 victims documented, only claims against two priests were within the criminal statutes of limitations. These two priests were indicted earlier. The rest of the victims are simply, totally out of luck. There is literally only one way to restore justice to them: revive their expired civil statutes of limitations. In other words, to fix the wrongs done to them, they deserve the choice to file civil lawsuits. The Report itself makes that very recommendation, so let’s do it.

Well, the ones who can do it—Pennsylvania lawmakers—have failed to do so. Bills have been introduced and rallies have been held, but Pennsylvania Senate Republicans have blocked this one opening to justice for the victims. They are lobbied publicly by the bishops (via the Catholic Conference) and in the shadows by the insurance industry, and then they smilingly embrace these lobbyists’ lame and immoral arguments against the victims. They say they are horrified by what they read in such a report, but the bill that Senate Republican leader Scarnati now backs does nothing for the victims in this Report. The bill would extend the civil statute of limitations until a child victim reaches age 50 and eliminate the criminal statute of limitations. They clearly hope that the public will believe they are doing something meaningful in response to the Report while they thumb their noses at every victim in it and then kiss the bishops’ rings. This is cynicism. This is, actually, evil.

Extending and eliminating the statue of limitations is necessary for the future, but it leaves a gaping hole of injustice in the heart of the state. If Scarnati’s bill were to pass, the ongoing injustice will be his fault. So what can be done? Victims and good people need to speak up and tell their elected representatives they are done with a society that permits over a thousand kids to be abused by 300 members of the clergy, and fed up with the ongoing suffering with no end. It’s time to give everyone some closure on child sex abuse by giving the victims the power. Tell your elected representative the following: “help the victims with no justice by passing a window to revive expired civil statutes of limitation for child sex abuse.” It’s the least we can do.

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