PA Catholic Conference Report: Justice Out of Balance

State lawmakers vote for legislation that could bankrupt Catholic parishes, schools & ministries

HARRISBURG – Parish volunteers and employees who work with children know firsthand the measures now in place to protect the children in their care from abuse, including background checks and safe environment training about recognizing and reporting signs of abuse.

However, state lawmakers are considering amendments to legislation that could lead to the closure of parishes, schools, and ministries of today’s Catholics, who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago.

The proposal would retroactively nullify the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit alleging childhood sexual abuse. It would force parishes, dioceses, schools, and charities to defend cases that are 30, 40, or 50 years old, long after the perpetrator and possible witnesses have died or clear evidence is gone.

“Every nonprofit organization is at risk,” says Robert J. O’Hara, Jr., executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, “Nothing in the proposed Pennsylvania legislation would send any perpetrators to jail.  Rather, it will put individual parishes and neighborhood Catholic schools in the firing line for lawsuits that are nearly impossible to defend against.”

O’Hara acknowledged that the Church has learned hard lessons regarding child sexual abuse.  In recent years, the prevalence of adult misconduct with children has been revealed in nearly every institution and organization that serves children. He added that the Church has responded accordingly with compassionate assistance, including financial support, for survivors and comprehensive education and training to identify and prevent abuse.

“No other institution has done more in recent years to help survivors of abuse and put in place policies to prevent abuse from happening in the first place,” O’Hara said.  “And yet, there are some legislators who continue to aim devastating legislation, like this current proposal, directly at the Church.”

As proposed, this “window” legislation would open up a period of time for lawsuits against private and nonprofit organizations, no matter when the offense occurred.  It would not apply to public schools or government agencies. Public entities would still be able to claim sovereign immunity from lawsuits, even though the vast majority of Pennsylvania students — 83 percent — attend public school. Survivors abused in public schools, juvenile detention facilities, or county foster care programs could not bring suits under the legislation.

A fundamental principle of American law, statutes of limitations set time frames within which parties need to take action to ensure fairness in our legal system. Simply put, statutes of limitations encourage lawsuits to be filed when witnesses are available, memories are fresh, and evidence is intact.

Measures that nullified the civil statute of limitations in other states drained billions of dollars from current ministries, parishes, schools and dioceses. The Diocese of Wilmington, DE, paid out $77.4 million in bankruptcy. The Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, was ordered to pay $8.1 million to just one child abuse survivor. The dioceses in California paid out $1.2 billion for more than 1,000 claims, some involving alleged abuse as far back as the 1930s. Bankruptcy and severe debt was the only option for most dioceses in the states with retroactive windows.

In Delaware, where a retro-active law was adopted, more than half of the individual parishes in the state were sued. One parish in Delaware was hit with a verdict of over $3 million. Very few could afford to go to court; none were able to defend themselves on their own. Financially, they had no choice but to join a group settlement without establishing the facts of individual cases.  The Diocese of Wilmington had to close two struggling inner-city Catholic schools because diocesan funds were drained paying out settlements. The diocese had to lay off 10 percent of its workforce, and shut down or severely cut back on its Catholic Charities programs that help all people regardless of creed.

Diocesan resources, which had kept struggling parishes and schools open and filled the gaps for ministries that feed the hungry and serve those in need, were depleted to satisfy costly settlements and attorneys’ fees as part of the bankruptcy proceeding. “In every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania, there are numerous parishes and schools that are struggling to stay afloat,” says O’Hara.” A retroactive change in the law will hit these parishes and schools the hardest, jeopardizing their existence.”

“We can all agree that anyone who sexually abuses a child should be severely punished by the law,” added O’Hara. “Sexual predators should be locked behind bars and removed from society so they cannot hurt anyone else; but opening the floodgates for decades-old civil lawsuits will not put one pedophile in jail.”

More than two-thirds of the accused perpetrators [68 percent] were already dead or very old and long removed from ministry at the time claims were made under California’s statutes of limitations “window.”  Plaintiffs’ attorneys filed so many cases in California, Delaware, and Minnesota that out-of-court settlement and bankruptcy were the only way to manage the numbers. Very few victims or defendants had their day in court; guilt or innocence was not the deciding factor in settlements but crippling financial ramifications for the defendant parishes and dioceses were the result.

Since 2002, the Catholic Church has worked to end child sexual abuse by aggressively responding to allegations and educating adults and children about the signs of abuse. Today, the dioceses have one-strike-you’re-out policies for clergy and employees accused of misconduct with children. As a matter of policy, any allegation of child sexual abuse must be immediately reported to the proper law enforcement agency.

In Pennsylvania, over 450,000 Catholics have been trained to identify signs of abuse and are mandated to make a report when they suspect wrongdoing. All clergy, staff and volunteers who work with children are carefully screened for any past transgressions against children. Ironically, these long-time practices put in place by the Church are now state law for all adults who work with children, following reforms made in 2014.

The Catholic Church has also been a leader in providing abuse survivors with counseling and other forms of assistance. The dioceses in Pennsylvania have committed significant resources to help sexual abuse survivors and their families obtain counseling, support groups or other social and material services to assist them in their healing and recovery from the traumatic experience of abuse.

This is not the first time Pennsylvania has addressed the statute of limitations issue.  As recently as 2008, Pennsylvania increased the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases from age 20 to age 50 for criminal prosecutions and age 20 to 30 for civil actions. A task force that was appointed in the wake of the sexual abuse revelations at Penn State reviewed the law and recommended a sweeping overhaul of state child protection statutes. It also addressed Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations and did not recommend any changes. They cited fairness as a major concern, especially “the potential for staleness of evidence and possible constitutional concerns.” The report states, “The Task Force believes that the current statute of limitations is adequate, given that Pennsylvania is one of the most ‘generous’ states in terms of the length of time within which an action may be commenced.” (Report of the Task Force on Child Protection, pg. 28)

“Sexual abuse is a serious crime that affects every institution and community in Pennsylvania, public and private,” O’Hara said.  “Because of its gravity, it needs to be dealt with comprehensively and fairly. Any discussion of a legislative remedy must protect all children, not simply penalize some institutions.”

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is urging Pennsylvanians who value our parishes, schools and charitable organizations to contact their state lawmakers and oppose unfair changes to the civil statute of limitations.

Amy B. Hill is Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs agency of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses/eparchies of Pennsylvania.

NOTE: On Monday, April 11, 2016, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives amended House Bill 1947, a proposal to remove the criminal statute of limitations (SoL) for childhood sexual abuse and raise the civil SoL from age 30 to 50 moving forward. This bill as amended would prospectively, but not retroactively, lift sovereign immunity so someone who is abused in a public institution in the future could sue the school district or government agency. The amendment retroactively extends the civil SoL from survivor’s age 30 to age 50. To put it another way, civil claims that are currently time-barred would be revived until the victim reaches age 50 but only if that abuse occurred in a non-profit setting, as public schools and agencies would still be protected by sovereign immunity. Nonprofit and private organizations like Catholic parishes and schools could be sued for past cases, but not public schools. The House is expected to vote on final passage of HB 1947 today. If it passes, it will move to the Senate.

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