2018 Year in Review: Child Sex Abuse Statutes of Limitations, and the Catholic Bishops’ Spiritual Retreat

Posted in: Criminal Law

Hundreds of American bishops are gathering for a week-long spiritual retreat at a seminary in Illinois in response to their self-inflicted wounds of grotesque child sex abuse compounded by their intentional cover-up. They don’t plan to address policy, but rather to pray. I have some advice for them: cut the prayers and instead start a political retreat on the victims’ access to justice.

It’s not that I’m not a fan of prayer. I pray all day every day for guidance and some explanation why God would give me this mantle of pushing for justice for child sex abuse victims against every religious and secular organization on the planet. I wrote Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children, first published in 2008, which advocated for the end of child sex abuse statutes of limitations, because I thought naively at the time that if I just explained the problem to people, legal reform would quickly follow. Who in the world would fight child sex abuse victims’ access to justice? I honestly thought that the many states that were shutting victims out of the legal system were doing so without knowing and as soon as they understood the truth—child sex abuse victims typically take decades to come forward—they would simply eliminate the SOLs and we could move on to more “important” issues. Boy, was I wrong, because it turned out that there really has been a powerful lobbying force for pedophiles: the Catholic bishops and their insurance industry accomplices.

I have been documenting the movement for child sex abuse victims’ civil rights since 2002. In December 2006, I issued a report card here on child sex abuse legal developments. It was a mixed bag but notably, a headline was that Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput had succeeded in killing SOL reform there. In 2010, I wrote here about steps forward and back regarding child sex abuse SOL reform. Featured there were the successful efforts of the Catholic Conference to stifle their victims’ and all child sex abuse victims’ access to justice in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and South Dakota.

Jump ahead six years, and there was more light on the horizon, as I discussed here. In 2015, over a dozen states introduced bills to reform the child sex abuse SOLs Again, though, the underbelly of the movement was the bishops’ “viselike grip” on lawmakers, which blocked reform in heavily Catholic states like Pennsylvania and New York. Two years later, in 2017, over half of the SOL bills introduced were enacted. It is not that states went to the limit and eliminated both criminal and civil SOLs and enacted windows to revive the expired civil SOLs for victims from the past, but eight out of 11 states enacted the SOL reform bills introduced. That is progress. Again, the bishops were responsible for pressuring lawmakers to refuse to enact windows in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

The Catholic bishops are part of the largest religious organization in the world and have generated with their cover-up mentality the sex abuse of millions of children. Yet, once their failures were published to the world, they did not act quickly to reverse what they had done. There was a moment in 2002 when they could have thrown up their hands, screamed “mea culpa” to the heavens, and perhaps redeemed themselves in the book of history. Instead, they have dragged their feet and worse, they have fought like a cornered wild animal to keep victims out of court. They can pray non-stop for the next 2,000 years, but if they do not get out of the way of SOL reform, they are going to become worse than hated—irrelevant. Why anyone cares at this point about their views on this issue is beyond me. Saving these victims and our children is on us, period.

2018 was a busy year for SOL reform, and 2019 looks to be a banner year. Regardless of the bishops.

The 2018 SOL Year in Review for Child Sex Abuse Statutes of Limitations

Mid-year 2018, it appeared as though the SOL movement had gained such momentum that “miracles” were occurring: Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York were giving serious consideration to window legislation that would have made the institutions and perpetrators of child sex abuse accountable. I discussed how each state was making solid progress here. None of those states enacted such legislation in 2018, and in all three states there was a common denominator: Republican-controlled legislatures were disinclined to help the victims and willfully ignorant to the reality that SOL reform is necessary to educate the public about hidden child predators and institutional skullduggery.

Let me rephrase that: window legislation, which lets victims from the past shift the cost of abuse to the ones who caused it, is the best and only tried and true means of forcing the names of child sex predators into the public square. The bishops’ compensation programs do not prohibit such disclosures, but they also don’t permit the discovery of evidence that proves the degree of their involvement in making the sex abuse happen. Opposition to window legislation is not holy, but rather a knowing choice to shield the institutions that cover up child sex abuse and to protect perpetrators instead of children. Those are facts, not political rhetoric.

There was a lot of activity in 2018: many states introduced bills that covered a wide range of prospective approaches from extensions of the criminal and civil SOLs to outright elimination. 2018 also saw a number of bills that would have enacted “windows” during which expired civil SOLs would have been revived including Georgia, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. A summary is available here.

Despite enormous momentum, most of the bills died on the vine. Only California, Hawaii, and Michigan enacted SOL reform, and California’s three-year window bill was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, repeating what he had already done before for the bishops. Hawaii remarkably added yet two more years to its window legislation, which ultimately will have been open for a record-setting six years, and Michigan passed the shortest and narrowest window in history. Indeed, Michigan’s “window” should be called a “sliver” because it only lasts 90 days and ultimately only applies to the victims of Dr. Larry Nassar.

2018 ended, though, with the momentum getting stronger. A Democratic sweep in New York virtually guarantees the Child Victims Act will become law 15 years after we first started pushing for it, and the same is true for New Jersey. Pennsylvania still has political challenges but the irrefutable logic of SOL reform should overcome the shortsighted protection of the bishops from themselves. Many states will be entering window waters as well, with the new legislative terms starting up.

There is still a great deal to do, but since 2002, the movement has been strong and is only getting stronger. I reiterate my advice for the bishops: before settling down to prayers, make a retreat from lobbying against the victims. That should clear your consciences somewhat.

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