About 350 priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia attended two sessions this week designed to inform the clergy about pending state legislation to lift the statutes of limitation on cases involving sexual abuse of minors.
The afternoon and evening meetings on Tuesday, May 17 at St. Helena Parish’s hall in Blue Bell were led by Archbishop Charles Chaput, archdiocesan officials and consultants, and were intended to equip the clergy to discuss the legislation immediately with parish pastoral and finance council members plus other parish leaders.
The speakers described House Bill 1947, which passed in the state House of Representatives in April by a 180-15 margin, and its potentially devastating effects to the Catholic Church and all other private institutions across Pennsylvania.
Parishioners throughout the archdiocese will be strongly encouraged in early June to contact their state senators and express opposition to the bill. It is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings beginning June 14 to study the constitutionality of the bill.
Speakers at the meetings described the dire financial impact upon Catholic parishes, schools and institutions that would likely result from an expected flood of civil lawsuits should the bill be approved by the Senate and signed by the governor.
Archdiocesan spokesman Ken Gavin confirmed in a statement on May 19 that parishioners will in coming weeks learn from their pastors about the issue “in a comprehensive way” and which will include “a great deal of information that’s been absent from the public discussion.”
Media attention on the issue has tended to voice proponents’ arguments for the legislation as a way to give victims of sexual abuse the ability to sue the church and other organizations as a means of healing from their experience and to force the church to change how it handles matters of sexual abuse.
Aid for victims of clergy sexual abuse
Gavin said it was an “overlooked fact” that the Catholic Church “has accepted responsibility for past abuse. It has worked very hard to support survivors and prevent abuse from taking place,” he said.
He pointed out the archdiocese had offered $13 million in aid to victims since 2002. Information from the archdiocese shows about $1.5 million is spent each year on services that included counseling, medication, reimbursement of travel and childcare expenses, vocational assistance and other forms of support.
A survivor’s independent counselor or therapist indicates the needs of his or her client, and the archdiocese’s Victims Assistance Program meets those needs for the individual and family members regardless of when the abuse occurred and without limitation on how long the services are needed, according to Gavin.
He further added that abuse prevention policies including mandatory education and criminal background checks for church workers and volunteers “have been more extensive and going on for much longer than in other institutions.”
Since 2003 about 192,000 adults and children involved in the parishes and schools of the archdiocese have received training to recognize, respond to and report child abuse and improper conduct immediately to law enforcement authorities. The archdiocese has spent $5.7 million on abuse prevention since 2004, according to church records.
“Those efforts exceeded what was prescribed by Pennsylvania law before it was changed a few years ago,” Gavin said. “In some aspects, archdiocesan child protection efforts still exceed state law.”
Proposed changes to Pa. law
Currently, Pennsylvania law allows criminal cases to be brought up to the victim’s age 50, and civil lawsuits up to the victim’s age 30. Statutes of limitation, a legal principle intended to ensure fairness, encourage suits to be filed within a certain time frame. The statutes bar suits reaching back many decades because witnesses may be dead or otherwise unavailable, memories may dim or change, and evidence may not be intact or available.
HB 1947 calls for abolishing all criminal statutes of limitation on child sexual abuse in future cases – a provision that the church in Pennsylvania does not oppose.
The bill also calls for lifting statutes of limitation until the victim reaches age 50. That provision is retrospective – plaintiffs could “look back” into an abuse case from decades ago and file suit against any private organization in the state. That includes religious organizations and individual churches, youth organizations, sports leagues and other private entities.
One provision of the bill would lift the statutes of limitation on public institutions such as school districts but only prospectively – going forward, not looking back. The current law would remain in force regarding monetary caps on settlements against public entities found to be grossly negligent in protecting minors from abuse: $250,000 per plaintiff or $1 million in total related claims for state agencies, and $500,000 for local and county agencies, including school districts.
Private organizations would face damages in an unlimited amounts.
The bill appears to establish two classes of victims. Under current law that would pertain under the new bill, people whose abuse occurred in a public organization must file their lawsuit within six months of the alleged abuse. Under HB 1947, victims within a private organization could file suits decades later.
In a few weeks when parishioners hear at their parishes more details about the push to lift statutes of limitation in Pennsylvania, “they’ll be shown that the proposed legislation does not treat all survivors of child abuse in an equitable fashion,” said Gavin of the archdiocese.
“Parishioners will also certainly receive information about how the legislation might affect them, as well as the parishes, schools, and charitable works they love and support based on what has happened in other states,” he said.