Abuse Victims Still Don’t Get Justice

Posted in: Juvenile Law

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently decided to permanently redact the names of eleven priests from the Fortieth Grand Jury’s report on sexual misconduct by the clergy in six Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses. The court ruled that the priests’ interest in their reputations was one of the “inherent rights of mankind” that the court needed to protect by taking the priests’ names out of the report. Redaction was the only path they thought they could find to protect the priests’ due process.

This conclusion was counter to the release of the complete report, which CHILD USA and BishopAccountability advocated in our amicus brief, which I wrote along with Marci Hamilton, Founder and CEO of CHILD USA. The court’s decision neglects the history of child abuse, which is a constant story of individuals who are terribly and repeatedly abused, and then never get justice.

The facts of child abuse are terrible and the stories about them constant. The Miami Herald recently told the story of more than 50 girls who were abused by rich Palm Beach businessman Jeffrey Epstein. Instead of having their interests protected, the girls were never told of Epstein’s “deal of a lifetime” with then-prosecutor and now Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. The victims’ stories were kept quiet, and Epstein got a laughably short sentence. Epstein’s victims are still looking for justice.

Along with thousands of others. As many times as we read and re-read the statistics, they remain shocking. According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children’s Sexual Abuse Statistics:

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
  • Over 58,000 children were sexually abused last year.
  • 8.3% of reported child abuse cases were sexual abuse.
  • 34% of people who sexually abuse a child are family members.
  • 12.3% of girls were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization, and 30% of girls were between the ages of 11 and 17.
  • 27.8% of boys were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization.
  • 96% of people who sexually abuse children are male, and 76.8% of people who sexually abuse children are adults.
  • 325,000 children are at risk of becoming victims of commercial child sexual exploitation each year.
  • Caregiver alcohol or drug abuse is a child abuse risk factor putting kids at much higher risk for being abused.
  • The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14 years old, and the average age for boys is 11 to 13 years old.

Moreover, according to the National Child Abuse Hotline, “Yearly, referrals to state child protective services involve 6.6 million children, and around 3.2 million of those children are subject to an investigated report.”

The abuse of children in the Catholic Church has become a shocking worldwide story that has even led some people to ask for the resignation of the pope. A 2004 church report says 4,000 US Catholic priests had faced sexual abuse allegations involving 10,000 children. Those numbers keep expanding. The recent Pennsylvania grand jury reported on 300 clergy with 1,000 victims. The stories of those victims are terrible to read, just as all the abuse stories are. In Pennsylvania, only grand juries can bring them justice.

Amici explained to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that that state’s grand juries play an essential role in opening the long hidden scenes of sexual abuse to the public’s eyes. The average age of reporting child abuse is 52. Fear and shame keep victims from reporting it. Statutes of limitations, which set a deadline as to when a case must be filed, usually keep the victim from filing a civil case. And, unlike some other states, Pennsylvania has not abolished the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of the abusers. Only two priests from the list of 300 could still be prosecuted. The rest were all protected by the statute of limitations. So in only six dioceses of one state, a thousand victims cannot collect civil damages against their abusers, and only two abusers can be prosecuted. The numbers become incredible when you add dioceses throughout the country.

Pennsylvania has repeatedly resisted attempts to make the statutes of limitations more victim-friendly.

This means that the only path to justice for most abuse victims is the grand jury, where the victims could be listened to as they told their horrible stories of abuse. We’ve already learned from earlier Pennsylvania grand jury reports of how terrible the crimes against children are, and how much the church’s clergy and bishops cooperated in the misconduct against children. Victims have reported some freedom in seeing victims’ voices taken seriously by the state. Victims are healed through transparency, and not by having anyone continue to hide the names and conduct of their abusers.

Without the grand jury reports, many people might think there was no sexual violence in Pennsylvania and that the church is especially safe. Instead, the grand jury learned that sexually abusive priests were protected by their co-workers, who sent them to new jobs rather than doing anything to protect children. For decades the Catholic hierarchy moved accused priests to neighboring dioceses where the accused priests’ crimes were unknown. The grand jury report taught that the church’s administrators watch out for priests instead of children. The suppression of the priests’ names leaves in the dark what should become public.

Pennsylvania law of the grand jury (42 Pa.C.S. §4552(e)), allows the Priest Petitioners to write a response to the grand jury and to have it published along with the grand jury’s report. That strikes a proper balance between the horrible, usually unpunishable crimes against children and the reputation of the priests. Instead of recognizing that the presence of those reports provides adequate due process for the priests, the Supreme Court ruled that because the grand jury report was large, “the response would pale in significance.” Moreover, because of the cumulative effect of the large report, readers would have a hard time “evaluat[ing] the credibility of an individual’s response.”

That is a narrow and mistaken response to a problem of great magnitude. The numbers show that children are repeatedly abused and rarely get any justice for it. I agree with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who led and repeatedly defended the grand jury, and said:

Today’s Order allows predator priests to remain in the shadows and permits the Church to continue concealing their identities.

I will continue to stand with all survivors, fighting to ensure every victim gets their day in court and that every predator priest and every bishop and church official who enabled child abuse is held accountable for their abhorrent conduct. The public will not relent in its demand that anyone involved in this widespread abuse and cover up be named. No one victim’s truth is any less important than another and no one’s criminal conduct any less loathsome.

It is very sad for child victims, who have been suffering for years because of their abuse by church members, to once again see the court protect adults who harm children instead of protecting the children themselves.

The court’s decision sends a negative signal to survivors of abuse. The proper response to abuse involves transparency. Once some abusers’ names are released, more victims step forward to tell their own stories of their abusers. An open grand jury report works because openness, instead of closure and secrecy, is the best approach to the long history of child sexual abuse.

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