In the wake of the recent release of another investigating grand jury report regarding abuse of minors by clerics, Pennsylvania state lawmakers have introduced a proposal to revive previously time-barred civil claims arising out of allegations of childhood sexual abuse. If passed, the new law would open a two-year “window” during which victims could file such claims without regard to the previously applicable statute of limitations. No claim, no matter how old, would be time-barred.
Other states, including Delaware, California, Minnesota, and Hawaii, have passed similar measures. The impact has been substantial – jury awards and settlements measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars and a steady stream of bankruptcy filings. Although the Catholic Church has been the focal point in the mainstream media, the impact has been felt by the insurance industry and a wide array of nonprofits whose missions involve service to children.
The backdrop to this ongoing crisis is the scourge of child abuse. This abhorrent behavior – described in vivid and lurid detail in grand jury reports and the press – evokes strong emotions to both punish any surviving wrongdoers (and those who protected them) and to compensate victims who have been harmed. Rightfully so. What good is a system of criminal and civil justice that cannot accomplish those goals?
Lost in the common narrative, however, is the timing of the harms in need of redress. Based on reporting in the popular press, it would be easy to assume that the most recent grand jury report exposed hundreds of new abusers. But most of the abuse chronicled in the report occurred in the last century; approximately 80 percent of the alleged abusers are now deceased and most of the rest are aged and out of active ministry. Furthermore, on the positive side, the report revealed that, since the Catholic Church in the United States established strict procedures for reporting and handling allegations of abuse in 2003, only two cases involving persons under age 18 – of the thousand reported from the seven dioceses studied – have been reported in the last 10 years. In other words, there is evidence that the reforms in dealing with abuse and abuse allegations are having their intended effect and preventing harms to children, even though it is not reported in the media.
Because the narrow focus was on Catholic Church abuse, no one knows precisely what happened in youth clubs or public schools, or whether they report the same progress in preventing claims because they are protecting children. None of this, of course, diminishes the impact to victims, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. This is where the desire for justice, powerfully evoked by the sickening stories recounted in grand jury reports, runs headlong into the policy rationale behind statutes of limitation. And the natural desire for punishment collides with the reality that many of those who committed the abuse and any “cover-up” are no longer alive.
For the full article, refer to page 6 in the Winter 2018-2019 issue. https://www.airroc.org/assets/docs/matters/AIRROC_Matters_Winter_2018-2019_vol_14%20_No_3.pdf