Our Catholic dioceses have implemented significant changes to aid abuse survivors and affirm that they are not at fault for the crime committed against them. The Church has a sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime occurred. We accept our responsibility for abuse that occurred within our ranks and will support survivors as long as necessary. The dioceses are also committed to the goal of protecting children and ending child sexual abuse by aggressively responding to allegations of sexual abuse, carefully screening clergy, employees, and volunteers, and educating adults and children about the signs of abuse and how to report that abuse to civil authorities.
Despite that, on Tuesday, April 12, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to allow civil lawsuits to be filed retroactively for cases against non-profits in which the survivor is now between 30 and 50 years old. However, this provision applies only to private or non-profit organizations like the Catholic Church, not government institutions like public schools or juvenile facilities. This provision is clearly unfair and is designed to target the Catholic Church.
Here is more information to help you not only understand what it proposed, the kind of impact this legislation will likely have on Catholic parishes and ministries throughout the state, and what the Church has done to help survivors of abuse, no matter when their abuse occurred.
What are statutes of limitations?
A basic principle of American law, statutes of limitations ensure fairness in our legal system by requiring lawsuits to be filed in a timely manner. Without them, non-profits and Churches could face lawsuits alleging abuse from decades ago. It is nearly impossible for an institution that did not itself commit the abuse to defend against a lawsuit from many years past because over time witnesses’ memories become unreliable, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased.
Why does the Church oppose this legislation?
The Church is not opposed to eliminating the criminal statute of limitations (this legislation would eliminate this statute). We can all agree that anyone who sexually abuses a child should be severely punished by the law. Sexual predators should be locked behind bars and removed from society so they cannot hurt anyone else. Criminal cases require a burden of proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt and fairness is built into the system through checks and balances.
In contrast, anyone can file a civil suit with a much lower burden of proof. An alleged abuser may not even be alive, but a third party, like his or her employer, could be sued even after the perpetrator, possible witnesses, or clear evidence is long gone. Removing this fairness from our judicial system would make it impossible for any organization that cares for children to defend itself in court many years later.
Why should parishioners be concerned about this legislation?
In other states where similar laws were passed, lawsuits were brought against individual parishes as well as the diocese. The money needed to settle the lawsuits would come from the dioceses and parishes in which the alleged abuse occurred. In other states, retroactive changes to the law resulted in dioceses closing schools, parishes, and charities and, in some cases, declaring bankruptcy. In short, this legislation has the potential to severely cripple the ministries of the Catholic community in Pennsylvania.
This legislation would impact Catholic schools. What about public schools?
The retroactive feature of the legislation would apply to churches and other private or non-profit institutions, such as the Boys Scouts. It would not apply to public schools, which are protected from certain lawsuits under a legal doctrine called “sovereign immunity.” Numerically, the vast majority of abuse cases occurred and continue to occur in public schools – this is a matter of public record – but the proposed legislation would most heavily target private and religious organizations. Simply put: The bill as currently written would allow lawsuits to be filed retroactively against private institutions, but only allow lawsuits to be filed in the future against public institutions.
What are some of the implications of the legislation to amend the statutes of limitations?
The most obvious practical result of bills such as this one is to generate lawsuits against the Church and millions of dollars in legal fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys. The proposed retroactive change in the law does nothing to enhance the security of young people today. And since most Catholic schoolchildren attend public schools, Catholic families should note that is does nothing to assist the many persons abused in public schools and institutions in the past.
What can I do?
It is important to remember that the Church remains strongly committed to helping survivors of clergy sexual abuse heal. That will not change. The proposed retroactive legislation is really about punishing the Church and today’s parishioners for sins committed by evil individuals in the past. This is not justice.
- Pray for the healing and recovery for all who have survived the traumatic experience of childhood sexual abuse in your daily intentions.
- Learn more about the devastating impact of this legislation here.
- Find out what your diocese is doing to protect children and provide healing and support for sexual abuse survivors. Link to the victim assistance program in your diocese here.
- Encourage your friends and family to stay up-to-date on the issue by visiting the PA Catholic Conference website at www.pacatholic.org. News and updates about the issue will be posted as they develop.
The Catholic Advocacy Network is a useful tool to make it easy for you to contact your legislators. Take action on one of our key issues to join. We will email action alerts when legislation starts to move.