Sen. Tim Kearney speaks in favor of ending the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)
By Marci Hamilton
t’s been nearly three years since a grand jury report initiated by Attorney General Josh Shapiro found that bishops and leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years.
In a state such as Pennsylvania, where one in every four residents is Catholic, the report was both scathing and sobering – revealing more than 1,000 identifiable victims were abused at the hands of bishops, priests and other leaders of the Catholic Church.
Even before Shapiro’s report, in 2005, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham released a jaw-dropping, lengthy report about child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia which gave a detailed account of the horrific abuse of hundreds of children by more than 60 priests and the cover-up by leaders of the church.
It is obvious that these survivors should be able to seek justice so they can finally begin healing from the abuse. However, despite the best efforts by thousands of advocates who demanded lawmakers to take action, most survivors in Pennsylvania are still barred from bringing lawsuits due to our state’s longstanding restrictive statutes of limitations.
Across the 32 Catholic archdioceses in the United States, there are limited policies that exist to protect children from clergy sex abuse.
In fact, according to CHILD USA’s recent study of the written child protection policies of the 32 U.S. Roman Catholic Archdioceses, there is no uniformity in policies across the country, and the content and quality of these policies vary significantly.
The same research additionally found that the average overall score for all 32 archdioceses, based on an objective system determining whether practices and procedures to safeguard abuse victims are described in the archdiocese’s policies, was 100.9 out of 250 points, or just 40 percent of the total possible score.
Here in Pennsylvania, the research found that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ranks fourth out of the 32 total archdioceses – leading many local bishops to claim Philadelphia churches have the “gold standard” of child protection.
But while it might seem like Philadelphia maintains better child protection policies than its peers, its overall score is just 124.5 out of 250. The reality is that the Philadelphia Archdiocese has been falling disturbingly short for decades to provide a truly safe and protective space for children.
That is why advocates, survivors and hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians alike are calling on the state Senate to immediately pass statutory window legislation to finally offer an opportunity for survivors of child sexual abuse to hold abusers and the institutions that enabled them accountable – no matter how long ago the abuse took place.
We cannot rely on institutions such as the Catholic Church to lead the charge and reform their child protection policies, after they have already failed to do so for decades and enabled countless additional abuses to occur. And through our recent findings, it is clear there is still no “gold standard” being practiced in Philadelphia or anywhere in the country by the Catholic Church.
Fortunately, we are seeing some positive movement, with the state House of Representatives having recently passed – with overwhelming bipartisan support – HB951, sponsored by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, that would create a two-year civil liability window for child sex abuse survivors.
Now is the time for our state senators to act and pass a similar measure that offers a statutory window for victims, making it impossible for these institutions to continue their patterns of abuse and the obstruction of survivors’ access to justice.
Survivors who suffered decades-long abuses should no longer be ignored and forgotten by lawmakers, and our children and parents should no longer be without adequate protections to ensure perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.
As we observe Child Abuse Prevention Month, I can’t help but think of all the survivors who have lost their lives waiting for a window to get an opportunity for justice: Pennsylvanians such as Arthur Baselice III and Jimmy Spoerl, brave survivors of abuse by clergy members, who struggled to cope with the trauma of their abuse and passed away before getting a chance at justice.
It’s time for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to stand up for survivors. It’s time for lawmakers to start protecting survivors over sexual predators.
It’s time for the thousands of victims, those who have died waiting for a window and those still waiting now, to be given a chance at justice to take their abusers to court and heal from the trauma they’ve endured for so long.
The nation is watching. Advocates, survivors, and the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians across the commonwealth who support a statutory window bill are watching.
Let’s be on the right side of history and urgently pass this gold standard legislation.
Marci Hamilton is the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group.
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