The recent publication of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s searing report on the sexual abuse committed by priests from multiple dioceses throughout the Commonwealth has refocused public attention on an old problem ̶ and why it has persisted for decades.
As horrific as the revelations of the abuse itself have been, even deeper concerns stem from the cover-up of the problem by church officials, who apparently viewed the financial interests and reputation of their institution as more important than the lifelong suffering of victims who were molested by individuals they should have been able to trust. Both the nature of the abuse itself and the depths of its cover-up provide the reasons why the Pennsylvania General Assembly should change the statute of limitations to permit survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and others to sue and seek compensation in civil court.
Statutes of limitations establish deadlines for the filing of lawsuits. They exist for important reasons, including the prevention of claims based on stale or outdated evidence, and the protection of innocent parties. Typically, they bar lawsuits two years after an injury or, in the case of children, two years at the plaintiff’s eighteenth birthday. In 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly created an exception for sex abuse victims, allowing them to bring cases until their 30th birthday, provided their claims were viable as of 2002. In essence, this extended the limitations period for persons born within twenty years of the revision (1982 or later). Obviously, this change left many victims with claims that could not be brought, and virtually all of the victims of the abuse summarized in the Attorney General’s report would be unable to bring an action today.
To understand why survivors of sexual abuse should be permitted to file claims even many years after their abuse, it is necessary to grasp the nature of the wrongdoing, and the context in which it occurs. As the case of clergy abuse shows, the perpetrators are usually people in positions of authority over their victims, particularly those who are children, but also women who often find themselves in workplaces dominated by men. It is a sad fact that their inferior status compared to their abusers often makes the victims feel guilty and ashamed, or even blame themselves, leading to extreme reluctance to come forward. This is even a bigger problem when the abuser is a member of the clergy, cloaked with religious authority.
Second, institutions ̶ churches, schools, corporations ̶ have the tendency and resources to minimize legitimate complaints and to hide evidence of wrongdoing. The Catholic Church’s longstanding practice of transferring priests known to be pedophiles from parish to parish to prevent discovery of their perversity ̶ called “passing the trash,” is a classic example.
Today, as we see sexual abuse dramas played out in media headquarters, courtrooms and even on the floor of the U.S. Senate, we have learned why victims live with the damaging secret of past sexual abuse. We have also learned that the harm done by the abuse lasts a lifetime, acting as a constant threat to disrupt the victim’s life, no matter how many defenses, or how many accomplishments he or she has built up over the years.
But we have also seen that the evidence of abuse, once revealed, does not grow cold. Victims remember, medical records get preserved, patterns of abusers’ misconduct get shown, and cover-ups reveal themselves. Survivors’ lawsuits, with their subpoena power and other tools, have the ability to bring the evidence to even fuller light.
A statute of limitations is simply the creation of a legislature. It exists to promote justice, not to permit wrongdoers to escape accountability. The Pennsylvania General Assembly is currently considering changes to the statute applicable to sexual abuse cases which would permit lawsuits to be brought until the victim’s fiftieth birthday or, under a compromise bill, for a “window” period of two years following the Attorney General’s report. The Church and other institutions have spent millions in lobbying dollars to prevent the change. It is high time for lawmakers to reject those efforts, and to take the steps necessary to protect the thousands of victims among their constituents.