Lawmakers Should Revise Sex-Abuse Statute

Delco Times [Pennsylvania]
July 24, 2006

For adults who suffered abuse as children at the hands of priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, it seems, there is little justice. Perhaps they may glean some psychological relief from counseling, but, because of Pennsylvania's statute of limitations, there is no chance their abusers will answer for their crimes in a court of law.

That same statute has been in play in preventing alleged sexual-abuse victims from winning monetary satisfaction through civil lawsuits.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has banked on that.

The archdiocese's lawyers drove the point home yet again last week in their motion to dismiss a civil complaint filed by attorney Stewart E. Eisenberg in U.S. District Court on behalf of 14 adults -- 12 who are named and two who are identified as "John Doe" and "Jane Doe."

One of the plaintiffs said he was abused by a priest when he was an altar boy at the old Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Chester from 1963 through 1965. Another is a Lansdowne man who said a priest abused him and his brother in North Philadelphia from 1977 through 1981.

Obviously aware of the failure of previous clerical sexual-abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese due to the statute of limitations, Eisenberg has decided to take a different approach and accuse the archdiocese and three of its archbishops of violating the children's civil rights and being racketeers.

Eisenberg invoked the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act -- or RICO -- because, he said, not only were the archdiocesan officials aware of the priests' illegal and immoral acts, they concealed them "through the use of various immoral and illegal tactics, including but not limited to coercion, threats, intimidation, retaliation, bribery, document manipulations, document destruction and outright lies."

He was referring to such practices as transferring priests accused of abuse from parish to parish and suggested that archdiocesan officials were basically conspiring to stifle scandals that could ultimately affect their coffers.

In their motion to dismiss, archdiocesan lawyers maintained that Eisenberg was simply trying to circumvent the statute of limitations, their ace in the hole since 2002 when notorious clerical sexual abuse cases in Boston triggered lawsuits across the country.

But the archdiocesan lawyers didn't stop there. They took the opportunity to try and discredit the Philadelphia grand jury report released last September that named 63 priests who allegedly abused children as far back as the 1950s. Forty three of those priests had connections with Delaware County at one time or another.

The archdiocesan lawyers claimed Eisenberg was "parroting substantial portions of a disputed grand jury report that resulted in no indictments."

Assuming the federal judge who reads the archdiocese's motion has been around the block a time or two, he or she will realize that those who disputed the grand jury report were attorneys representing the archdiocese and that the reason there were no indictments of the priests was because the statute of limitation expired.

Ironically, most of the accusations of sexual abuse of children included in the grand jury's report came from the archdiocese's own records.

The grand jury, which was convened by Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham in 2002, chastised archdiocesan officials for not turning sexual abuse complaints over to civil authorities in a timely fashion and enabling potential pedophiles to have continued access to children.

It also recommended that the Pennsylvania Legislature abolish the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against children so potential pedophiles can no longer escape prosecution simply because the clock runs out. In addition, the grand jury encouraged the Pennsylvania Legislature to amend the law so it would allow unincorporated associations such as the archdiocese to be held to the same standard as corporations for crimes concerning the sexual abuse of children.

Since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops fashioned a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, archdiocesan officials have been turning sexual abuse complaints over to civil authorities. They have also recently announced the defrockings of several priests because of what they determined were credible allegations of sexual abuse, including one who they received complaints about 40 years ago.

The archdiocese has established a victim assistance line at (888) 800-8780. The Philadelphia District Attorney has also encouraged alleged victims of clerical sexual abuse to call (215) 686-8718.

In the last three years, the statute of limitations has been extended from within two years of the abuse or age 18, to the age of 30.

But all of the above is not enough.

The Pennsylvania Legislature should follow the Philadelphia grand jury's recommendation and eliminate the statute of limitations for future sexual offenses against children.

While the statute has thus far served the archdiocese well in defending itself, it should no longer enable potential pedophiles to run free.


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