Editorial: Pa. response to church abuse insufficient


Michael Bryant/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

Seated on the stage with 14 other sexual abuse victims during a news conference on the findings of the Grand Jury Report on Child Sexual Abuse in six Catholic Dioceses in Pennsylvania at the State Capital on Aug. 14, two members of the Fortney family console each other as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro describes the abuse their family suffered at the hands of Father Gus Giella.

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

After a shocking Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in August detailing the enormous scope of sexual abuse within the Commonwealth’s Catholic churches, the federal Justice Department launched an investigation across Pennsylvania on Thursday by issuing subpoenas to at least seven of the eight state dioceses.

It’s unusual for the federal government to intervene with allegations against the Catholic Church, but it matches the demands many survivors of sexual abuse and activists have made since the release of the report. The Pennsylvania Senate also had a chance to show its support for victims in the form of a bill that would allow victims of church abuse to seek justice, but in an underwhelming display of concern it declined to vote on the bill on the last voting day in legislative season.

The grand jury report exposed a massive cover-up of sexual abuse perpetrated by over 300 Catholic priests in the Commonwealth for more than 70 years. It identified about 1,000 survivors of child abuse and estimated thousands more unidentified cases.

But most of these survivors can’t take legal action against their abusers because the statute of limitations for sexual abuse against minors in Pennsylvania expires when the victim turns 30 years old. After that point there can be no legal recourse against offenders or institutions.

Shaun Dougherty, a victim who testified before the Altoona-Johnstown jury, was abused when he was 10 — but he’s now 48, well beyond Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations.

“If this doesn’t start a serious debate on the elimination of the statute of limitation, there’s something seriously wrong with my fellow Pennsylvanians,” Dougherty said before the jury.

But Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, who belongs to one of the diocese in the grand jury report, believes that eradicating the statute of limitations would “force the people who make up an organization like the Catholic Church today to defend themselves against a crime that was committed in their parish, school or charitable program years ago.”

But the bill before the state Senate wouldn’t change the statute of limitations — it would create a window of two years in which the statute of limitations wouldn’t apply, meaning survivors past the 30-year-old age limit would be able to pursue lawsuits against both offenders and institutions.

The bill isn’t enough to address the problem of systematic abuse within the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, but the senate failed to pass even this minimal measure. If the Commonwealth truly wants to reach out to survivors and address the abuses there, then they could consider getting rid of the statute of limitations altogether. This isn’t a revolutionary idea — in other states such as Arizona and Maine, there is no specific statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse.

The Pennsylvania senate had the chance to begin to address a problem that has not and will never go away for survivors of sexual abuse, regardless of how old they are — and they missed that chance. This legislative season, in the best interest of all Pennsylvanians, senators must take another look at this bill.