The Unintended Effect of The Statute of Limitations in Clergy Sexual Abuse Cases

Recently, a grand jury in Altoona, Pennsylvania, released the shocking findings of a two-year investigation. The 147-page report documents the cover up by the Altoona diocese of the molestation and rape of hundreds of children by priests.

The statement from Attorney General Kathleen Kane that followed only compounds the horror of these findings. She noted at the time that no one could be criminally charged due to the statute of limitations. Much of the abuse happened between the 1940s and the 1980s. When most of the abuse occurred, the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits was two years or at most until the victim turned age 20. Decades have gone by for the victims, many of whom have only recently been able to come forward.

Every attorney understands that the purpose and effect of a statute of limitations is to protect defendants and help insure a fair trial. In this case however, as well as others like it, there exists a number of factors that should give us all cause to question whether or not justice is actually being served by the current statute of limitations.

Under the current law, a victim can sue for child sexual abuse as late as age 30. To the average person who has never been the victim of such a crime, or known someone who has, this may seem like more than a sufficient amount of time to come forward.

The fact is, it is not uncommon for victims who have endured sexual abuse as children at the hands of an authority figure—a coach, scout leader, priest or teacher, for example—to suffer in silence for a long period of time before coming forward; that is, if they ever come forward at all.

Why is this the case? Victims are often deeply traumatized by the sexual abuse they experienced, and typically feel an overwhelming sense of shame. Clergy are revered and respected members of the community. The thought of reporting abuse committed by such figures makes victims afraid of not being believed. Victims may even blame themselves, as if somehow they could possibly be at fault or prevented these heinous acts by child predators. There is sometimes a religious component to the shame, in which victims believe that reporting the abuse is a betrayal of their faith, their spiritual father or other act of sin. Many victims are lured into abuse situations in which a kind of emotional confusion takes over when a clergy member suddenly sexualizes a close relationship. All of these factors help to explain why victims of clergy sexual abuse often take so long to come forward.

Some states have tried to help the victims of these tragic events by completely removing the time limits for future criminal cases involving child sexual abuse. Also the time limit to file civil law suits for abuse that occurred in the past has been lifted, often times referred to as a window. In Pennsylvania, the governor and many others are calling for this type of reform.

What action can we take, as attorneys who are dedicated to helping the victims of childhood sexual abuse?

First, as good citizens who have a sense of compassion, we must do everything within our power to keep this topic at the forefront of public awareness. We must contact state representatives and lawmakers and urge them to take swift action and do the right thing.

As attorneys who are part of the communities we serve, we can make a difference through support of local and national organizations dedicated to helping the victims of childhood sexual abuse.

It is critical for those who have suffered childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a clergy member to seek counsel from an experienced law firm that understands how difficult it is to come forward; a firm that will do everything possible to see that victims get the assistance and support necessary to find closure and ease their suffering.

Today, right now, add your voice to the many others in support of the recommendations of the 37th Statewide Investigating Grand jury: the complete removal of statutes for future child sexual abuse criminal cases and opening a window of time allowing civil suits for past abuse.

Stewart Eisenberg is a founding partner of Eisenberg, Rothweiler, Winkler, Eisenberg & Jeck, P.C., LLC., in Philadelphia, is an experienced attorney in civil rights and childhood sexual abuse cases, and someone who is personally committed to seeing that the victims of childhood clergy sexual abuse receive the justice they deserve.

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