On June 2, a letter signed by nearly 100 Christian religious leaders from various traditions was delivered to members of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee.
The letter called for the reform of our civil and criminal statutes of limitation in child sexual abuse cases and specifically for passage of state House Bill 1947.
In my work with Samaritan SafeChurch, I connect with leaders of faith communities across the state. Many are troubled that the public narrative has been that “the church” opposes reform.
While the Roman Catholic Church has indeed poured significant resources into blocking reform in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it does not represent the full spectrum of churches, which includes various denominations, affiliations and theological understandings.
SafeChurch — along with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and other organizations — encouraged religious leaders to use the opportunity presented by the letter to counter this narrative.
I am moved by the numerous clergy from Lancaster County who stood up for justice for survivors, for protection of children and for accountability for not just those who harm but for the institutions that cover up sexual abuse.
The letter signers, acknowledging that the church has been in the news for its failure to protect children too many times, “grieve the harm this has done to not only to the reputation of the church, but to the Lord Jesus Christ we serve.”
The association of the church with efforts to deny access to justice for victims of child sexual abuse is painful for many survivors, including the majority who were not molested by clergy. Even survivors not currently religiously affiliated look to church leaders to uphold the values of protection for the most vulnerable among us, and justice for those who have been sexually violated as children.
The leaders signing the letter embody these values and should give new hope to survivors and others that the prevailing narrative of church opposition to reform is going to change.
Following the release of the grand jury report by the state attorney general in March 2016 detailing the horrific abuse and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the failure of an institution to protect children once again put Pennsylvania in the spotlight.
As the grand jury report revealed, a victim payout chart developed by Catholic Church officials ranged from compensation of $10,000 for above- clothing genital fondling to $175,000 for sodomy and intercourse. Momentum swelled for reform of our statutes on child sexual abuse, even as the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference — the public affairs arm of the Catholic Church in the commonwealth — doubled down on opposition.
In April, House Bill 1947 passed overwhelmingly in the House, by a vote of 180-15. It’s now in the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican from Montgomery County.
As it stands, the bill would:
— Eliminate the criminal statutes of limitations for certain child sexual assault cases.
— Extend the civil statute of limitations from age 30 to age 50 to give survivors additional time to attempt to seek damages.
— Make the extension of the civil statutes “retroactive” for survivors older than 30 but younger than 50 — in other words, those people would now have until age 50 to file a civil suit.
It’s important to note that in other states where reform has included retroactive provisions, the “floodgates” described by opponents have not been opened. The number of claims is relatively small in states where retroactivity has been implemented, compared to the actual number of survivors and state population. Nor have the predictions of mass closing of parishes and schools as a result of claims come true.
Anthony Flynn, counsel to the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, noted in a June 5 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “We had 26 parishes that were sued and in the line of fire — and those parishes are still operating.”
He also acknowledged that a school that had to close was doing so badly financially it may have closed regardless.
In addition, the standards of evidence required for successful prosecution of a case remain unchanged under HB 1947, and still pose considerable challenges for older survivors. (For information and statistics on SOL reform around the nation, visit www.sol-reform.com.)
The letter from religious leaders urges the Judiciary Committee to move the legislation to the Senate without delay. The signers note that their own experiences with survivors reflect what mental health experts tell us about the long-term impact of child sexual abuse: that survivors often do not disclose until later in life, only to find the window for justice has closed.
There is no statute of limitation on murder. There should not be one on sexual abuse, which has the potential to destroy the spirit or soul of a child, leaving him or her unable to trust anyone, including God.
While some heal, others do not, and they are lost to suicide, addictions, serious mental health issues and a host of other ills.
In their letter, the religious leaders state: “We are reminded of the widow (Luke 18:3) who persisted in asking for justice. The time has come to grant that to survivors.”
If you agree, add your voice and sign on to a separate letter of support for the general public available at www.pcar.org. The time is now.